The coronavirus pandemic has changed how many Georgians vote—at least temporarily.
During the past primary election a whopping 1.1 million Georgians voted by mail, compared to only 37,000 in the 2016 primary, but this surge was expected. More people are wisely eschewing public gatherings and don’t feel that it’s prudent to huddle into tightly packed polling locations. Instead, they prefer to enjoy the convenience and safety of casting a ballot from the comfort of their homes.
With the November elections approaching, and COVID-19 nowhere near eradicated, odds are that far more people will likewise vote in absentia in the general election than in 2016. However, the specter of an election with record-setting mail-in voting participation has set off various alarms and warnings—predicting a host of issues from rampant fraud to considerably delayed election results. But not all of the absentee voting warnings are based in fact, no matter how often they are repeated and by whom.
My case in point: President Donald Trump has long expressed concerns over voting in absentia. Indeed, back in April, he even tweeted, “Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to state wide mail-in voting. Democrats are clamoring for it. Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”
He later clarified his statement to exclude absentee voting, but effectively, there’s no difference from “mail-in voting” and absentee voting, given that they both describe the same action: filling out a ballot mailing it in.
But is there merit to President Trump’s statements here in Georgia—is our absentee system rife with fraud and does it unfairly favor Democrats? It doesn’t appear so. According to the Heritage Foundation, there have been five proven cases of “Fraudulent Use Of Absentee Ballots” in Georgia over the course of the past 20 years. While the goal should be zero cases, this is far from being a system riddled with fraud.
What’s more, states have the technology and processes at their disposal to mitigate the risk of absentee voter fraud. Elections officials can employ signature verification technology and track ballots via barcode. Further, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger even appointed the Absentee Ballot Fraud Task Force to “to ensure no one undermines the integrity of the vote in Georgia during this time of crisis.” Its members look a bit like a who’s who of many of Georgia’s leading prosecutors.
Despite officials’ efforts to secure the election, those who oppose absentee voting waste little time repeating a debunked counterpoint that around 28 million absentee votes have inexplicably gone missing in the last four elections. This leads many to believe that there is some sort of grand conspiracy to suppress certain individuals’ votes, but this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the data. In fact, the 28 million votes aren’t missing at all. These simply represent ballots mailed to voters who never returned them.
Beyond these matters, it doesn’t seem that voting from home inherently benefits Democrats over Republicans. For one, anyone—regardless of their party affiliation—can vote absentee, and a recent Stanford University study found that voting in absentia doesn’t give any party an advantage. Interestingly, there are numerous instances in deep blue states like California, Colorado and Oregon where Republicans have upset Democrats in elections that heavily relied on absentee voting.
There is one valid point about the upcoming general election that has been underreported: we cannot predict exactly when we will know the election results. In the past several cycles, the majority of national, state and local races have been decided on election night, but the 2020 election night will be different. After all, more voters will cast absentee ballots by mail, all mailed ballots postmarked the day of the election must be counted and it takes time to deliver and count each ballot. Therefore, it could be a week or more after election night before close races can be called.
Of course, this will anger some of the electorate, but it is better than the alternative—voting in-person. As long as the coronavirus ravages America, the safest way to perform your civic duty is to do so by mail. But at least you can rest assured that doing so is secure and doesn't unfairly benefit either party. Even so, we will need to practice some patience as the results are gradually returned.
Marc Hyden is the Director of State Government Affairs at the R Street Institute, and he is a long-time Georgia resident. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.