March 21, 2023

Election Day 2022 has come and gone, and our second trial in the national experiment of widescale mail-in voting is coming to a close.

I had a bit of a strange experience when I headed to the polls this year. Originally, I had planned to vote by mail, but I happened to be in my county during the weekend prior to Election Day. So, I voted in person (yes, partially for the second “I Voted” sticker). However, as I checked in to receive my ballot in order to vote, the poll worker told me I had already voted by mail.

Funnily enough, I had not. This was the first I was hearing about it.

After a long moment of awkward staring, she told me she would just cancel that ballot and handed me my ballot to finish voting in person. I moved along to my voting station and then got my sticker, but the experience continued to roll around in the back of my mind.

What had happened? Why had a ballot already been cast in my name? Or had it been a clerical error? More importantly, if I had voted by mail as planned, would my vote have counted?

We could speculate about this situation all day, but, ultimately, this strange circumstance draws attention to the potential failures of widescale mail-in voting and indicates a need for us to return to largely in-person voting in a post-pandemic world.

Prior to COVID-19, 34 states did allow mail-in voting, with five primarily vote-by-mail states, while 16 states restricted mail-in voting to qualified absentee voters. Before the 2020 election, California allowed for mail-in absentee ballots upon request, but in light of the pandemic, California switched to a vote-by-mail state. Now, the state mails a ballot to every voter, but it also allows for in-person voting if someone prefers to vote that way. Despite the in-person option, most people now favor the early vote-by-mail option.

In 2020, voting by mail made more sense. We were in the relatively early months of a two-year pandemic. Now, though, we have moved back to a state of normality. Hence, we should try to steer clear of the inevitable risks of mail-in voting.

Mail-in voting in a nation as large as the U.S. — or a state as large as California — is bound to be chaotic. As of 2021, the U.S. population clocked in at nearly 332 million people and California’s was 39.24 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Of course, not all of these people turn up to vote. However, in 2020, 155 million voters cast their ballots, indicating an upward trend in voter turnout. Even the 2022 midterm elections had a high voter turnout for an off-year election. Add this many ballots to an already overburdened mail system that processes and delivers 425.3 million mail pieces each day, according to U.S. Postal Service Facts.

Sounds like a lot to handle, doesn’t it?

Although measuring the amount of lost mail is difficult and data is lacking, some sources suggest anywhere between a fraction of 1% to 3% is lost. Regardless, it is worth questioning the feasibility of this system as it stands now. With this influx of mail-in ballots, there are bound to be cracks in the system.

There are plenty of other reasons to favor in-person voting. With in-person voting, we are much more likely to get same-day election results.

Also, mail-in voting encourages early voting, and in some cases, very early voting. Ballots often arrive in mailboxes weeks before elections, meaning some people cast their ballots in a completely different context than other voters. This can minimize the effect of pivotal events directly before Election Day.

Now that we have rolled back COVID-19 health protocols across the board, we need to return to in-person voting. We will only continue to grow as a nation and, with that, we are bound to encounter confusion with a mail-in voting system.

Of course, in-person voting has its flaws, too, but we can work toward correcting those. For example, we should provide more resources about in-person voting locations and ensure people have ways to get to the polls. We should also continue to allow for absentee voting in certain situations. But, when used on a broad scale, mail-in voting will only breed distrust in the voting system and encourage errors.
In the long run, it just doesn’t work.

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