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The Power of Remote Voting

Amidst raging infection rates, voting by mail seems to be the safest option. Will it remain free from tampering and electoral fraud?

U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed the possibility of fraud during voting by mail. While his claims are not backed by concrete data (with Twitter going as far as to classify one of his tweets as fake), there are certain aspects to this method that is worth analysing.

The Trump campaign sued to block the use of official ballot drop boxes in locations other than an election office in Pennsylvania, yet failed to back it up with evidence when asked by a Federal Judge to do so.

VOTE BY MAIL

Ballot papers are sent to voters and then returned by post or in person. Generally, in the U.S., postal votes may be available on-demand or to those who fall under certain criteria. Five States conduct voting regularly by mail — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah. At least 21 other states have laws which allow for certain smaller elections, like at school board contests, to be conducted by mail. 

The voter marks the ballot, puts it in a sleeve and then into a separate mailing envelope, signs an affidavit on the exterior, and returns the package via mail, or by dropping it off. Ballots are mailed out well ahead of Election Day, giving voters an 'election period' to vote. All-mail elections can be thought of as absentee voting for everyone.

The process in the U.S. differs from the postal voting in India, where only certain people are eligible for the facility; members of the armed forces; members of the police force of a State, and government employees posted abroad and their spouses. In this COVID-19 pandemic period, the Election Commission of India has allowed people under quarantine and those above 65 years to vote by post. 

In April 2020, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll saw 58 percent of American voters prefer an All-USA reform to allow everyone to vote by mail, and another 9 percent (total 67 per cent) favouring it this year because of COVID-19. Pew Research also found that 49 percent of Republicans and 87 per cent of Democrats supported this measure. 

COME NOVEMBER

Mr. Trump has been openly dismissive of this method.  He is also against extra funding for the postal service. "They want $3.5 billion for something that will turn out to be fraudulent... now they need that money in order to make the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots. Now, if we don't make a deal, that means they don't get the money. That means they can't have universal mail-in voting, they just can't have it,” Trump said in a telephone interview with Fox Business Network.

In 2012, News21 reporters sent out thousands of requests to election officers in all 50 States, asking for all cases of fraudulent activity to establish a database of the amount of election fraud, if any. It was found that the U.S. had witnessed 2,068 cases of alleged election fraud since 2000, with the ‘unknown’ category being the highest in number (31 per cent, 645 cases) and voters themselves (31 per cent, 633 cases). The Absentee Ballot Fraud stood at 24 per cent (491 cases). This proved that while fraud is an issue, it is a rare instance considering the millions who vote regularly. 

GOOD AND THE BAD 

As per a report on Utah higher voter turnout  was observed when postal ballots were used, although no specific trends to favour any party could be discerned, as proven by a study by Stanford University. Those who are at work, disabled and unable to go in-person to voting stations, and other disenfranchised groups who might not have a voting booth near them, are able to participate in higher numbers.  The rise in voters would be inclined towards young, non-white, and not registered with the two major parties, or first-time voters.

However, there are disadvantages to not following the traditional voting pattern. For the blacks, it is an empowering and community-inducing process. There are also issues about the lack of security — a popular argument against the mail-in voting is that family members could be coerced into voting for other candidates. 

Another issue is the higher chances of vote rejections. Wisconsin rejected more than 14,000 absentee ballots in the April 7 primary because they lacked witness signatures. South Carolina election officials have admitted that the witness requirement is more of a burden than a help. They can also be rejected for something as simple as mismatched signatures. New research conducted by NPR shows that more than 5,50,000 votes were rejected in this year's presidential primaries, all based on mistakes made by first-time voters.

Democrats have filed lawsuits over removing mail-in voting restrictions such as the witness and signature requirements for absentee ballots, while most Republicans have been trying to preserve this.

Native Americans, who live on reservations, might not have a mailing address. Lower-income voters are often migrants, and their address might not match the one to which their ballot is sent. With the higher rate of evictions during the pandemic, voting could be hard for this group as well. 

THE USPS 

The United States Postal Service (USPS) charged with ensuring timely delivery of the ballots is in the eye of a storm.  An independent agency of the U.S. federal government, during COVID-19, it has incurred losses amounting to  $2.2 billion in the three months to June, after having received no funding from the Trump administration. A Republican donor, Louis DeJoy, has been appointed to the USPS’s Board of Governors to serve as the Postmaster General and, in a newly created appointment, the Chief Executive Officer. This is the first time in nearly 20 years that a postmaster general has been appointed from outside the agency, says Associated Press reports.

It is alleged that through his recent efforts at restructuring, Mr. DeJoy is centralising the control under himself.  Democrat leaders have been asking him to rescind the cost-cutting directives that caused days-long backlogs and stabilise the system in the run-up to the election.  

Mr. DeJoy, in a hearing by the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said that he did not intend to restore mail-sorting machines, as they were not needed. Yet, he has admitted that some of the operational changes he implemented have caused delays in mail delivery.

Assessment

  • Mail-in voting has been found to be a useful tool that may be open to fraud just as with normal voting at booths. If anything, it increases the number of people who take part in the election.
  • The pandemic requires people to be safe, above all else, and therefore, mail-in voting is the best option right now. However, there could be other issues, such as mismatch of signatures that could substantially derail the process. 
  • The USPS will play a major role in such a scenario, and it is left to be seen how a Republican-headed USPS would deal with mail-in elections.  

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