Politics and logistics hamper vote-by-mail efforts


MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Thursday the 21st of May, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: preparing for election day.

Most states still require a majority of voters to cast ballots in person. But this year, with fears of a second wave of coronavirus, that’ll be no easy task.

One way around all that is fraught with problems of its own: voting by mail. President Trump is firmly opposed to that because of the potential for voter fraud. On Wednesday, he threatened to withhold federal funding to Michigan and Nevada over their plans to send absentee ballot applications to every voter.

BASHAM: Some of the president’s Republican allies are fighting similar efforts in their own states. But on top of concerns about fraud, state officials face a host of practical and logistical issues as well. WORLD’s Anna Johansen has our story.

ANNA JOHANSEN, REPORTER: Kim Wyman has never been so popular. She’s Washington’s secretary of state.

WYMAN: I’ve been on more media outlets in the last, what two months than I have in my entire 20 years of being an elected official.

Washington is one of a handful of states that has been doing all vote-by-mail elections for years. Now, every other state is calling Wyman to find out how she does it.

WYMAN: I think people started with the point that everybody should just move to vote by mail, that would just be the easiest thing. Close all the polling places and move and, and we kind of said, Yeah, let’s slow down, because you have to put it in place well, for people to believe the results.

Wyman says voting by mail is an enormous logistical task. 

Each ballot needs three envelopes: One for privacy, one to mail it in, and another for the voter to mail it back. Someone needs to stuff those envelopes. Someone also needs to track the ballots to make sure they don’t get lost in the mail.

It takes a lot of manpower, a lot of specialized tech and a lot of printing. Maybe seven to eight times more than a regular election. 

WYMAN: You can’t just flip a switch and turn that on…so we’ve really been kind of encouraging states to think about where they’re at, kind of on the spectrum of absentee voting. 

California already has a lot of voters who cast mail-in ballots. So it can probably make the switch to an all mail-in election pretty quickly. But in Tennessee, mail-in ballots account for just 3 percent of votes cast. It would be nearly impossible to make the switch by November. So many states in that situation are considering a hybrid approach: Keep in person polling places, but also expand vote by mail capacity. 

Wyman says that’s also going to be tough.

WYMAN: You couldn’t do a full blown polling place election and do all of the vote by mail election that you’re doing for an absentee voter at the same time and do both of them well, it’s just resources and time and you know, having enough people.

Charles Stewart is a professor of political science at MIT. He says regardless of what states decide, they need to make a decision now.

STEWART: There’s already reports of equipment shortages…And so…if a local jurisdiction decides in August, September that “Gee, a lot of people are going to vote by mail and we haven’t planned for it,” they’re going to be stuck.

Joe Tirio is the county clerk for McHenry County, Illinois. He’s waiting for his state legislature to make a decision. No matter what, the election is going to cost more this year: Even simple things like extra hand sanitizer and protective equipment for poll workers. If the state expands mail-in voting, that adds another layer of cost on top of the usual price tag. Postage alone would be in the millions.

TIRIO: If the legislature comes back and says, We’ve got money…that’s great. They could come back and say, Here’s the thing you’re going to have to do, and you’re gonna have to figure that out yourself.

States also need to decide whether to make voters request a mail-in ballot or send one to every registered voter. That’s the way Washington does it. It makes the process more accessible, but Tirio has some concerns with that approach.

TIRIO: Even in a presidential year, you’re probably at about 50 percent turnout. So that would mean 50 percent of the people have ballots that they don’t have any interest in and that become subject to potentially unscrupulous people wanting to go ahead and take, you know, grandma’s ballot and vote it for her.

Kim Wyman says fraud does happen, but it’s not rampant. In one Washington election in 2018, Wyman found 142 people who either voted twice or voted on behalf of a family member who had died. 

WYMAN: And that’s, you know, that’s terrible…142. But that’s out of 3.2 million ballots cast. 

She has to find a balance between accessibility and security.

WYMAN: And the moment either of those things gets out of balance, that’s when people start making claims that the election wasn’t fair.

Another challenge is tabulation. Counting mail-in ballots is labor intensive. It takes days.

WYMAN: So that’s one more thing is messaging that we may not know election night who the president is.

Wyman says even in a state that has been voting by mail for years, it’s going to be interesting.

WYMAN: I love my job. I really do. [laughs] But this is really testing the limits.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Anna Johansen.


(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File) In this March 10, 2020 file photo, a woman votes in the presidential primary election at the the Summit View Church of the Nazarene in Kansas City, Mo. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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