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Currently four states: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington run all their elections exclusively by mail. This seems to have the significant advantage of allowing people to vote at any time they please, thus increasing turnout. In addition, counties don't have to staff polling stations and controversial issues such as Voter ID are not a concern with postal ballots.

So why not switch to all postal voting throughout the US? Are there any significant upsides to the traditional voting system?

Update. I've asked a follow up question: Is there a higher incidence of electoral fraud in states that use all-mail voting?

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    Why aren't there ID issues? – pjc50 Dec 10 '19 at 7:48
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    There are huge ID issues. At present in the UK very little ID is required. There are discussions of moving to ID for voting and while local authorities would offer free photo ID for voters without passport or photo driving licence some would argue that this bureaucratic hurdle will make registration drives harder. But certainly personation feels 'more wrong' and more likely to be detected if people have to turn up in person and lie to the station staff. In Northern Ireland voter ID is compulsory because of a specific history of personation. "vote early, vote often" as the saying goes. – Duke Bouvier Dec 10 '19 at 12:21
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As a resident of Washington state, I’m a big fan of mail-in ballots. I know that you didn’t ask for upsides, but the fact that you can take the time to sit down to research and consider the issues and candidates, rather than rushing to fill out your ballot in a crowded public school gym, makes it much easier to be an informed voter.

Still, there are some concerns, some more serious than others:

Possibility of Fraud

While in-person voter fraud is almost non-existent, there is more opportunity for fraud with mail-in ballots since a much smaller group of conspirators could affect a greater number of ballots, reducing the risk of being caught. One recent example of this was in North Carolina’s 9th District where a Republican operative harvested mail-in ballots in order to swing the race.

In Washington state, this kind of fraud is prevented by matching voters signatures to the ones they provided when registering. While signatures are a weak form of identification, the more that fraudsters have to fake, the greater the chance of being caught, so any fraud ring of significant scale is likely to attract attention from the authorities. In addition, as Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. found out in the NC case, taking real people’s ballots comes with a real chance of being reported and caught.

Another possible form of fraud is registering fake people and voting in their name. This is easier to do with mail-in ballots as you don’t have to present an actual person at the polling station. Washington State uses several methods to identify fraudulent registrations, and do successfully invalidate ballots and arrest fraudsters to prevent this.

Still, despite all this, voter fraud is still exceedingly rare and the small costs of (possibly) increased fraud have to be weighted against the increased turn-out and improved ability to consider the ballot.

Delayed Results

One major problem, which no one has mentioned yet, is that mail-in ballots greatly delay the official reporting of election results. In most places with in-person voting, results are finalized within hours of the polls closing. In Washington State, it takes several days for close races to be decided, and final results aren’t certified until ~20 days after the election.

Thus, election results become a strange sort of horse race where the leading candidate often changes several times as the days go on. Interestingly, at least in Seattle, the early votes are often more conservative than the later ones, so the more conservative candidate often starts out ahead but then falls behind as the later votes are counted. Here’s an election update from the Friday after this year’s City Council elections, where the lead in a close race switches. It’s very dramatic, but is likely to create a huge amount of angst and chaos if a Presidential election hung in the balance (WA has voted for the Democrat by large margins in every election since Regan)


Others concerns are less serious:

Less ballot secrecy

As Duke Bouvier pointed out, one downside of mail-in ballots is that it makes it easier to prove who you voted for to others, which opens the door to people manipulating elections by bribing or threatening voters. In Washington State, this is prevented by allowing voters to simply print out a new replacement ballot. Thus, you could fill out your ballot, photograph it to send to the person who is bribing you, and then throw it out and print a new one to vote the way you want. By making it easy to foil bribery attempts, it significantly reduces the potential gain relative to the high risk of aggressive prosecution.

To ensure the secrecy of your ballot when it’s being counted, Washington state uses two envelopes and a 2-step process for ballot counting. The outer envelope contains your name and signature which poll workers check to validate your ballot. Once that’s done, the inner envelope containing the ballot (without any identifying information) is passed to a separate area where it’s opened and tabulated. Thus, no one person has access to both the ballot and your identity.


Other points raised by others are not a problem:

  • Information leakage is not an issue since (at least in WA and OR) votes are not counted until after the polls close. There is no early vote count information available to leak.
  • In the US, there is no expectation that people will all vote on election day. A majority of states allow early voting and in the 2016 Presidential election, 36.6% of votes were made early.
  • In WA state, votes must be postmarked by election day, or they can be dropped in a drop-box on election day. This means there’s no issues with people being forced to vote early.
  • At least as far as my research has been able to determine, there have not been any records ruined by rain or weather. The USPS and elections employees are skilled at picking up mail without it getting ruined by a little rain. In the rare case that a ballot is unreadable, the WA elections office will contact you by phone or email (if provided) to request a replacement ballot.
    • On the other hand, foul weather does have significant effects on in-person voting, with many people declining to wait on long lines in rain and snow in order to cast their vote.
  • There also isn’t a concern with voters receiving multiple ballots since received ballots are linked with the voter registration database and voters who send in multiple ballots are automatically flagged.
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    +1 on the info leakage, ballot validation, and weather points. Washington and Oregon know a thing or two about rain, so no worries there. :) – rickster Dec 10 '19 at 18:01
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    I'm a fan of vote-by-mail, but to play devil's advocate: there are more "casual" fraud concerns to worry about, too, particularly in some cultures. If in-person ballots are required, a family patriarch can command his wife and of-age dependents to vote as he pleases, but can't enter the voting booth with them to ensure it happens. In vote-by-mail, he can confiscate the materials, command signatures, and do all the ballots himself. – rickster Dec 10 '19 at 18:07
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    +1 for that first little blurb. As a Washingtonian who probably doesn't pay enough attention to city- and state-level politics, I greatly appreciate the flexible time and the information provided. My Texan partner, who's a recent transplant, was astounded by the ~60 page booklet that accompanied the ballots in our most recent election – Punintended Dec 10 '19 at 18:10
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    I live in Washington State. For a couple years, my ballots didn't count because of alleged signature mismatches, where the challenges arrived after the correction period (for which no explanation was given, i was shown my signature history, it hasn't changed an iota in the 9 years I've been in the state). More than once I've received 2+ ballots (clearly meaning someone else didn't receive one). It's an imperfect system, prone to leaving legitimate voters out in the cold - whose shortcomings are wholly fixed by in-person secret voting. – Knetic Dec 10 '19 at 22:26
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    I strongly disagree that having to wait a couple of days for the result is a major problem. Almost instant results is more a feature of electronic voting and that has an entirely separate set of problems. – Eric Nolan Dec 11 '19 at 12:02
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This answer is tainted by my German experience and views, but I expect many instances of it to apply to the US, too.

  1. With the traditional concept of an election day, all people have the opportunity to make up their mind up to that very day. With postal voting, the vote needs to be posted some time before to make it to the counting station in time.

    Now imagine a huge scandal surfacing on the day before election day with the leader of one party caught on video saying they’ll lock up half the population. Obviously, that is going to seriously hurt that party on election day, but if voters already cast their ballots they cannot change them.

    Whether you consider this more or less important depends on how much weight you want to give the ‘opinion of the people at a certain point in time’ philosophy when it comes to voting. Arguably, this can be mitigated by requiring ballots to be posted no earlier than other measures.

  2. Counties don’t have to staff polling stations

    While that may seem true on paper, they still have to staff vote counting. In Germany, most of what the polling station volunteers (not actually staff) do is counting the votes after the polling station closes.

    For most polling stations, this is an annoying, but not too hard task as throughout the day they will have already confirmed that all votes cast were legitimate and in the correct box. However, the volunteers manning the absentee/postal ballot station will have to confirm that for every single ballot while retaining integrity of secrecy of vote. Thus, they have a much higher workload than all other polling stations.

  3. This is essentially a tie-in to the previous argument, but it is harder to maintain integrity of the vote for absentee ballots.

    It all begins with the question whether the person who said they cast the vote actually cast the vote. Then, did they cast it by themselves or were they influenced/coerced/somebody made the cross for them. Did each eligible voter receive exactly one ballot paper? All of this is essentially checked on-the-fly while voting is carried out in traditional polling stations but there needs to be a separate process in place for postal ballots.

    It’s worth mentioning that a person with sufficient criminal energy can intercept ballots either on their way from the county to the voter (to cast their own vote rather than the voter’s – although this may show up if the voter is concerned they didn’t receive their ballot) or on the return trip (where they could silently let votes they don’t like disappear).

  4. Coming from a country that has mandatory ID and mandatory residence registration (which means you are automatically registered to vote if your residence is registered properly and you are eligible), it is rather easy to confirm someone’s identity on the spot. Even where there are no mandatory ID cards (like in the US or UK), many (sadly not all, though) people will have a driving licence or some other form of photo ID that should be acceptable as identification.

    With postal voting this method of identification is not used; at least in my country. The only thing that identifies you as being eligible is your signature on a slip of paper that you post together with a sealed ballot envelope. Not even a copy of the official ID is required. There is a quick ID check of sorts when picking up the absentee ballot, but again, it’s never confirmed again afterwards. So arguably all-postal voting makes claims of illegal voting easier rather than harder as ID requirements are, by definition, weaker.

  5. Even assuming all the above works perfectly, there is still no guarantee that the posted ballots make it to the county in good condition – or good enough to be counted manually/by the machines if they have them. All it takes is a particularly bad rainy day and a big puddle in the wrong spot or a bad gust of wind and the mail bag can get drenched potentially spoiling hundreds of ballots to be unreadable. Not a problem if ballots were cast in a dry indoor setting.

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    if voters already casted their ballots they cannot change them — in Sweden, people can vote by mail, then turn up on voting day to undo their previous vote and change their mind. – gerrit Dec 10 '19 at 15:34
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    This is a good answer, but to point 1, I’d point out that in the US, early voting is fairly common and occurs in most states, not just ones with mail-in ballots. – divibisan Dec 10 '19 at 16:08
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    WRT point 1, we don't have to imagine. There was an election in (iirc) Montana recently where one of the candidates punched a reporter in the face after many voters had already voted by mail. And WRT 3 and 4, the US press insists this isn't a significant problem, despite people being arrested for systematically casting fraudulent absentee ballots. To be fair, nobody has been caught yet doing this on a scale that definitively changed the outcome of an election; but clearly that was their goal, or else why would they be doing it? – StackOverthrow Dec 10 '19 at 19:16
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    Point 1. Is not really valid; the significant information could as well come out the day after election day, and then you are stuck with your vote too. There are other mechanisms to handle this. – Aganju Dec 11 '19 at 0:50
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    There's also the inverse of #5: Boxes of "discovered" ballots are routinely discovered in some of the more colorful areas; Broward County, FL, had a scandal with this in 2018. – chrylis -cautiouslyoptimistic- Dec 11 '19 at 1:28
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While the other answers address legitimate, valid reasoning why voting-by-mail has some hurdles to overcome before it can become a national policy, this decision is ultimately made by legislators, and thus their motives are the primary drivers of what becomes law.

In 2012, the Republican party was at a crossroads. The old-guard branch of the GOP, as represented by Mitt Romney, thought the best way to future electoral success was to expand the party via appealing to socially-conservative Hispanics. The tea party faction theorized that invalid votes (via illegal immigration and lax voter ID laws) were a large enough problem that solving that problem would be the difference between GOP failure and success. When Obama beat Romney in 2012, the GOP's strategy had been decided.

Voter ID laws, which had up to this point, largely been of the non-strict variety (ID was requested, but no one was denied their right to vote), began to quickly tip towards strict varieties (voters without ID could vote provisionally, but if they didn't return in a few days with an ID, their vote was thrown out). In 2013, the Supreme Court in Shelby v. Holder threw out section 4(b) of the Voter Rights Act of 1965, once again allowing states with a history of illegal voter suppression to discriminate in their voting practices without Federal oversight.

As Voting-by-Mail (also known as Vote-at-Home) has a propensity to increase voter participation, especially in low-frequency voters (a large portion of whom are young people and minorities, both of whom have traditionally swung for the Democrats), State and Local Republican legislatures have begun crafting bills to criminalize its misuse, whether accidental or intentional, and deny results taken from Voting-by-Mail. Until such time that Republicans see increased voter turnout and the increased ability to research the candidate at one's own pace as net positives, Voting-by-Mail will not be implemented outside of liberal states.

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    This is the real primary reason. You should add a tl;dr. Because it would increase the votes for the opposing party. – MooseBoys Dec 10 '19 at 17:33
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    Of the six states that will run the 2020 election my mail (CO, HI, OR, WA, CA, UT), all but one (UT) has been an uncontested blue state for the past two decades. – MooseBoys Dec 10 '19 at 17:42
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    "once again allowing states with a history of illegal voter suppression to discriminate in their voting practices without Federal oversight." That is wildly inaccurate. It eliminated preclearance, i.e. requiring Federal approval prior to changes. It still allows the government to challenge changes after they're made. – Acccumulation Dec 12 '19 at 4:17
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    @Accumulation You should go into politics with that spin! Yes, by the literal and unintuitive definition of the word, Clinton did get a "minority" of CO votes in 2016. But she still got 11.3% more votes than Trump. – MooseBoys Dec 12 '19 at 4:39
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    @MooseBoys: Still, George W. Bush did win Colorado in 2000 and 2004, making your claim that it "has been an uncontested blue state for the past two decades" untrue. – dan04 Dec 12 '19 at 14:39
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@Jan's answer is a good one, though I would be a bit more a fundamentalist about it. A postal vote is not a secret ballot and (inter alia) contravenes the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights and many other agreements.

You must be UNABLE to prove how you voted

In the UK, the US and elsewhere ballot secrecy was a hard won achievement by working class organisations such as the Chartists (in UK). It took 40 years from the extension of the franchise in the 1832 Reform Act to the implementation of the secret ballot in 1872. And the fundamental principles is not that you CAN keep your vote secret but that you should be UNABLE to prove how you voted.

One of the key purposes of ballot secrecy is to be prevent 'treating' - i.e. offering incentives to vote for a candidate. Treating made elections very expensive and harder for non-wealthy candidates to win. Obviously various other kinds of pressure can be applied as well.

One result of this is that in the UK the electoral authorities have been coming down very hard on people who e.g. post selfies from inside the voting station showing their ballot paper, even if done innocently.

Information Leakage

Bizarrely in the UK, now that there are large numbers of opt-in postal ballots, they are counted before the polls have closed. There are representatives of the candidate present to observe the count (as is the case for the main count).

They do not get the results of this count, but obviously are able to make a general assessment of the size of the bundles being counted, so get information on the polling BEFORE the polls have closed, which might have tactical implications. While they are supposed to keep this information secret, there have been instances of activists commenting on this on social media before the poll is complete and even if not made public you can be sure the information leaks out to activists locally.

This is not a necessary feature of postal ballots, but always a risk of postal voting.

(This is not widely known - and indeed I didn't until this happened: Tweeting about postal votes and MP Cautioned by police)

Access to postal votes

It used to be the case in the UK that postal votes were granted only for good reason (disability, absence overseas, etc). While this was not rigorously checked it, meant that the number of postal votes was low. Now that it is a simple opt-in the numbers have increased a great deal. It is now ~18% of the votes cast.

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    In the US states where vote by mail is a common (or the only) option: 1) The process is designed for ballots to remain secret. The voter's identity is on an outer envelope, not on the ballot itself or the inner envelope containing it. The local election authority validates and unseals the outer envelope, and the inner stays sealed to go into a common bin from which someone else does the vote counting. The secrecy safeguards aren't foolproof, but they're about the same as those for ballot boxes at in-person polling places. – rickster Dec 10 '19 at 17:54
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    2) Information leakage is not a necessary feature of vote-by-mail and early voting systems. In US states with vote-by-mail and early voting, it's mandated by law that ballots / ballot boxes remain sealed until the end of the voting period, no matter how much earlier they arrived. It is easy for some US voters to mistake media coverage of exit polling for early counting, though. – rickster Dec 10 '19 at 17:57
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    @rickster: How would a vote-by-mail system ensure that nobody could be rewarded for letting someone else watch them vote "the right way"? – supercat Dec 10 '19 at 18:30
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    @supercat How can you stop me surreptitiously taking a picture of my ballot at a polling station to do the same? – llama Dec 10 '19 at 18:51
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    @llama Because at the polling station I can erase my vote and change it to the one I actually prefer after taking the picture. (Or edit the photo, or probably other methods.) Whereas in person someone could force you to mark the paper (or mark it for you), and then put it in a post box from whence there is no return. – user3067860 Dec 10 '19 at 20:32
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Coming a bit late here and it's already clear that there are many arguments against postal voting and various combinations of those are likely to be the reason why one state or another has not switch to postal voting.

On top of all the named reasons there is one concept - credibility. The election is not credible if the losing party can plausibly claim that they were screwed by some intervention. For an election to be credible it has to be auditable at every step and their fairness must be as obvious as possible.

At the old-fashioned election candidates (or NGOs, or international observers) can come or send their representatives and witness every step of the process. Empty ballot box in the morning, voter registration and prevention of repeated voting, secrecy in booths, sealed envelopes when coming out, dropping the ballot in the box. In the evening box is opened, any candidate or representative can witness how the envelopes are opened and the votes are counted. There is no way to claim you were cheated.

In the postal voting, however, almost none of the steps are auditable. The losing party can claim that many people in the neighbourhood of their supporters didn't receive the ballots. Or that a bag of ballots from the poor neighbourhood was thrown out by the postman. Or that the employees at some factory had to bring the ballots to work and vote in front of their boss. Any of these claims could have a dozen "witnesses" regardless if it actually happened. How do you disprove it? How could a candidate check that it didn't happen?

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    So elections in Oregon and Washington are no longer considered credible? – JonathanReez Dec 10 '19 at 22:10
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    @JonathanReezSupportsMonica I would say that about the elections over all of the US. Even without the postal votes there are those blackboxes (electronic voting machines) used and you can't put a person to witness if the machine works totally fairly at every step. They are not absoloutely auditable even by a professional (you can't prove software to be bug free) and not auditable at all by a casual person. So why couldn't it be that 50% of votes for a certain candidate are randomly discarded? Out of a bug or malicious intent, doesn't even matter... – Džuris Dec 10 '19 at 22:16
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    As a washingtonian whose vote has been inexplicably discarded more than one year in a row, yeah it's not credible. That doesn't mean malice is involved, it just means that when your vote doesn't count or you never received a ballot, you don't have a lot of recourse. Humorously, the only way to be sure your vote counts here is to go down to a voting station, have them verify your identity and print you a ballot on the spot, and then deliver it by-hand on election night yourself. Which is just a more convoluted version of in-person voting. – Knetic Dec 10 '19 at 22:30
  • @Džuris it's technically possible to mathematically prove that software is bug free, although it's very uncommon to do so because it's rather difficult. – D M Dec 11 '19 at 5:21
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    Not a single US election has been credible in years, @JonathanReezSupportsMonica. They use electronic voting. – TRiG Dec 11 '19 at 17:53
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Whenever my local municipality discusses mail-based voting, the fraud problem always seems to be the one to derail it. Nearly every election fraud/tampering conviction we see on the news goes back to mail-in ballots in some way.

One common scheme (of many) is for a fraudster to either forge an application on behalf of someone else, or to intercept the ballot before it gets to the recipient. Rules that allow a third party to assist an elderly or infirm person who can't vote on their own make it easy for the "helper" to mark something contrary to the voter's wishes. Stories of these kinds of fraud come out after every election. The penalties are largely misdemeanor offenses, so the punishment isn't significant enough to deter the offenses or even to give authorities a reason to pursue them aggressively.

Couple that with high-profile cases like the 2018 elections in Broward County, Florida, where the government officials in charge of running the elections were accused of creating or destroying mail-in ballots to swing close races (reminiscent of the fraud that won Lyndon B. Johnson his senate seat in 1948). Incidents like these make people lose trust in the government's ability to restrain themselves from unduly influencing results. Voters tend to favor schemes that keep the government out of the process as much as possible.

In order to make postal voting work, we'd need a major overhaul of voting rules, processes, methods, and enforcement. That takes a lot of work, and few legislators are going to want to do that when the current system generally works and has safeguards against most types of fraud. The payoff isn't seen as being worth the effort plus the additional risk. Instead, tweaking the current system (like expanding the time window for early voting and no longer requiring people to vote at an assigned location) improves voter convenience/turnout while adding a minimal amount of additional risk.

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  • Are elections in Washington, Oregon and Colorado fraudulent then? How do they pull it off? – JonathanReez Dec 11 '19 at 4:22
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    @JonathanReezSupportsMonica Those elections can't be proven free from the coercion scenarios outlined in other answers/comments, as well as the "helper" laid out here. And by "can't" I don't mean "they haven't proven ... yet"; I mean it's literally impossible for a ballot that's filled out away from official observers to be provably free from these schemes. – Monty Harder Dec 11 '19 at 19:37
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There's a gigantic problem in the premise of this question: that all-postal mailing will increase voter turnout.

It's actually the opposite: making voting remotely accessible kills voter turnout. Because the main incentive to vote isn't actually making a difference (one vote rarely swings an election, especially above a local level) but a social incentive: it lets you be visibly seen doing your patriotic duty. From the link above:

In a Swiss voting experiment, where the government gave its citizens the option to vote privately through the mail, there was a significant decrease in voter participation!

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