Mailing It In and Also Mattering: Pandemic Voting Stirs Up Public

Atlanta voters line up to cast their ballots at West Hunter Street Baptist Church, located in the city’s historically black West End neighborhood, on June 9, 2020. (Courthouse News photo/Kayla Goggin)

BOSTON (CN) — Millions of Americans will vote by mail for the first time this November, but they disagree about the absentee-ballot process almost as much as they disagree about their preferred candidate. 

Whether voting in person is safe, whether mail balloting is trustworthy, and especially whether “mailing it in” makes them feel less like a part of an important civic process all evoked strong reactions from voters around the country who spoke with Courthouse News.

“I remember standing in line years ago with my baby daughter and voting in a governor’s race,” said Anne Quirk of Belmont, Massachusetts. “I don’t even remember who I voted for that year, but I’ll never forget the feeling of bringing my newborn to participate in something important.” 

Many voters agree that queuing up in person with their neighbors is emotionally meaningful. 

“Standing in line with my kids in tow, I feel connected to the strangers in line with me, all of us showing up to do our part,” said Marie Wright, a school board official near Colorado Springs. 

“The line sometimes being as long as some we have stood in for an amusement park ride somehow emphasizes that this is important,” Wright observed. 

Mike Garon, a university accountant, said it’s stressful to vote on his morning commute to work but “I really like the process of voting in person. To be a part of the community and see people in your district feels meaningful. Voting by mail just doesn’t have the same feeling to me.” 

Added Marc Freedman, a lobbyist in Washington, D.C.: “It’s one of the times I get to see some of my neighbors, and I like to see what turnout is like and the ‘civic duty’ nature of it — feeling like I’m part of the process.” 

Megan Hamner, a Boston-area marketing professional, said, “I like getting the ‘I voted’ sticker and the sense of civic pride I get wearing it around all day.” 

On the other hand, many voters care far more about the result than the feeling of community participation. 

“It’s not an emotional experience for me,” said Elizabeth Carlson, the founder of a music-education nonprofit in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. 

“I just want to make sure my vote is counted and the experience is as low-stress as possible,” Carlson said. 

Voters in states such as Washington that have had universal mail-in elections for a while often have a different take on the process. 

“There was nothing special about voting in person,” said Jennifer Varey, who lives in the Puget Sound area near Seattle. “Checking in with the old ladies who could barely read the names on the page, finding my name for them when they couldn’t, hoping I didn’t leave any inconclusive chads hanging on my ballot, and stressed people in line wanting to get home to their dinner. Nothing there to miss.” 

The first time Al Jacoby, a New York-area finance professional, voted was as a college student. “It was a cold rainy day and the lines were long, and I remember waiting outside in the rain for quite a bit longer than I liked. I vowed then that I would always vote absentee, so I could vote from the comfort of my home.”   

A poll worker empties scores of early ballots from a dropbox in Cambridge, Mass., on Monday, Aug. 31, 2020. (Courthouse News photo/Thomas Harrison)

But while Jacoby finds mail-in voting easier, others say it’s more difficult. 

“Mail seems like too much work,” said Melanie Footer, an advertising sales representative in Massachusetts. “You have to request the ballot, then you have to wait for the ballot, then you have to remember to mail the ballot and … do I have a stamp? 

“It’s easier just to go to the little school down the road,” Footer added. “While I’m there, I might see people I’ve haven’t seen in years.” 

Russell Haitch, a theology professor, says “the lines are usually not long in Richmond, Indiana,” where he votes. And voting in person “is a one-step procedure that I’ve done before.   

“Mail-in voting requires an absentee ballot, which requires filling out an application, which requires selecting from a list of reasons why I cannot vote in person — and none of those reasons legitimately applies to me,” said Haitch. “So I guess you could say I feel more honest voting in person.” 

Both Garon and Hamner said they’ll switch to mail-in voting this year due to the pandemic. “It’s safer and more responsible,” Hamner explained. 

But Footer said voting in person “doesn’t seem any more dangerous than the grocery store.” 

Janice Cahall, a registered nurse in Dover, Delaware, said she plans to vote in person. “I’m a health care worker and I’m very aware of the CDC recommendations,” she said, but “this is no different from going to Walmart. Wear a mask. Social distance and wash your hands or use sanitizer.” 

But Cahall added that voting by mail is “an acceptable option for people who are considered high-risk for Covid.” 

Some voters expressed concern that a mail-in vote is less likely to be delivered and processed properly. 

“I am a bit more nervous than usual that my ballot won’t get counted,” said Hamner. 

Carlson said she’s worried about “making an error filling out the absentee ballot since I have never voted absentee before.” 

Although Jacoby loves mail-in voting, he plans to vote in person this year, “given all the brouhaha about the post office.” That way, “I won’t be part of the problem when the election gets litigated because of the mail-in ballots.” 

Footer commented: “I’m from Massachusetts and we all know what’s going to happen. If I were in a swing state, though, I don’t think I would trust the post office.” 

But Therese Klaty, a utility analyst in Kihei, Hawaii, isn’t worried. “It makes me feel more confident when organizations that seek to protect voters’ rights, like the ACLU, support mail-in voting,” she said.  

Quirk observed that postal-delivery issues mean that it’s important for everyone to make a voting plan in advance. “Black people in the South have had to have a voting plan for 150 years,” she said. “White people in the North are just not used to it.” 

No one contacted by Courthouse News said the mail-in option made them more or less likely to vote in general. This is consistent with a Stanford University study published in June of this year showing that even universal mail-in voting — in which every voter is mailed a ballot, as opposed to simply receiving an application for an absentee ballot — had little discernible effect on turnout or on which party won. 

But there could be some effects at the margins, said Justin Levitt, an election law expert at Loyola Law School. Low-propensity voters who live in very rural and very urban areas are hard to mail to and might not get information on the new procedures. And many poll workers are elderly and might not show up for the people who are planning to vote in person. 

In the Wisconsin primary earlier this year, many poll workers decided at the last minute not to work, with the result that more than 100 rural towns had no one to operate the polls, Levitt noted.  

Voters who spoke with Courthouse News also seemed unconcerned that mail-in voting may require them to vote well before Election Day and thus miss information revealed at the end of the campaign. 

An analysis published by the MIT Election Lab suggested that this is unlikely to be a big issue because, “as more voters cast early ballots by mail or in person, campaigns have less incentive to hold onto negative information about their opponents in the hope of gaining an advantage through an October surprise.” 

Also, the MIT paper said, “the earliest voters tend to be the strongest partisans, and thus are less likely to be swayed by last-minute information.” 

In the presidential election, said Levitt, “this year more than most it’s hard to find anyone who hasn’t made up their mind already.”  

Campaign activists are seen outside Brook Hollow Library in San Antonio on July 14, 2020, as voters cast ballots in Texas runoff elections. (Courthouse News photo/Daniel Conrad)

For races other than the presidency and for ballot questions, some people say they vote more thoughtfully when they do so by mail.  

“It turns out I’m a much better voter when I use the mail-in ballot,” said Klaty. “I feel more relaxed about completing my ballot at a leisurely pace in the comfort of my own home with the opportunity to do more research along the way if I want to. 

“At a traditional polling place, even though I know I could preview the ballot and prepare in advance, I’m simply less likely to do that than I am to take my time with my actual ballot at home.” 

But Carlson said it makes no difference to her. “I have always done my research on down-ballot candidates,” she explained, and “in a general election and I basically vote straight-ticket.” 

Wright complained that voting by mail “feels less anonymous and less private than traditional in-person voting.” 

She explained: “The outer envelope I send my ballot back in has my signature on it and a bar code that identifies me. So I have to trust that the person supposedly checking the signature and opening the envelope doesn’t then peek into the sleeve to see my vote.” 

Also, “anyone who comes into my home also has access to my ballot depending on whether or not I complete it in one sitting, so it’s less private in that way, too.” 

Less ballot secrecy “may be unavoidable in pandemic conditions,” said Levitt. But he noted that secrecy — and privacy in general — is often less of a concern to younger people.  

“This is the generation that invented the ballot selfie,” he observed. 

Klaty noted that she appreciates one other little-discussed advantage of being able to vote from home.  

“The 2016 presidential election was particularly difficult for me because I wasn’t enthusiastic about the candidates, to say the least,” she said. “Being able to enjoy a glass of wine while I voted made that bitter pill a little easier to swallow.”

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