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.
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.