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Jan Hillard: Mail-in Voting is both safe and effective — and deserves broad adoption across the states

With COVID’s reach growing daily and the presidential election 3 months away, we must rationally look at alternatives to in-person voting.

Vote At Home photo

We cannot cast off alternatives with unsupported generalizations that claim widespread fraud. The evidence from years of using in-home and absentee voting does not support the claim of widespread fraud. Instead the evidence shows that mail-in voting can be made safer than in-person voting.

Nationally, 65% of Americans support mail-in voting. Some 44% of Republicans and 83% of Democrats favor this alternative (Pew Research, July 20, 2020).

To dig deeper into this partisan divide, Pew researcher explored the underlying question of removing barriers to voting. Nearly 80% of Democrats favor removing barriers to voting and using methods to increase voter turnout, while 60% of Republicans believe making it easier to vote would lead to widespread fraud. President Trump claims that “ballot harvesting” will be a source of widespread fraud. No studies by secretaries of state across the country support the President’s claim.

There are two types of vote by mail, in-person, traditional “excuse required” mail-in voting (commonly referred to as absentee voting), and “no excuses needed” mail-in voting (also referred to as vote-by-mail, mail-in, or in-home voting).

Currently, 44 states permit only “excuses required” absentee voting, while 6 states allow “no excuses required” mail-in voting for all elections (Utah, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, California). Kentucky only allows “excuse required” mail-in voting. Election procedures in all states are governed by state statue. States that allow mail-in voting have revised their enabling statues. Other states will need to make similar changes to their voting statutes.

The National Center of State Legislatures provides a synopsis of the advantages and disadvantages of “no excuses needed” mail-in voting. They include the following advantages and disadvantages:


• Voter Convenience: mail-in voting allows voters to study the issues and take their time determining their preferred candidates.

• Financial Savings: mail-in voting requires fewer polling staff and less equipment. Studies document an average of 40% savings in Colorado (Pew Research, 2016).

• Turnout: as a result of voter convenience, turnout increases, especially with voters who have not regularly voted in elections. Reports show that turnout increases as much as 15% in presidential elections and greater in state and local races.


• Tradition: loss of the civic experience generated at community-level polling places.

• Effect on Some Populations: Mail-in voting can negatively affect populations not well-served by the postal service (e.g. Native American reservations). Populations with low levels of literacy may also be negatively impacted.

• Security: mail-in ballots allow potential coercion by family members and friends or completion by others.

• Financial Considerations: mail-in elections incur greater printing and postage costs and new technology needed for ballot processing.

• Slow Vote Count: mail-in ballots slow the counting process, especially for states that allow the ballots to be postmarked on the day of the election.

The major advantage of “no excuses required” mail-in voting is that it increases turnout. The disadvantages can be alleviated with technology that is available or that can be developed. This includes technologies that provide stronger security than in-person voting.

The National Vote at Home Institute has developed a comprehensive plan for overcoming the obstacles to in-home voting (see “Vote at Home Scale Plan” March 2020). The report details the structural changes that need to be implemented ahead of, during, and after the mail-in process. The Institute cautions that these changes must be completed by April 15, 2020. We are now 3 months past this goal.

The report covers procedural changes including clear ballot and envelope design, full coordination with the postal service, postage-paid envelopes, signature verification, streamlined voter registration.

Other measures include addressing accessibility, providing voter education, developing highly accessible ballot templates (see Center for Civic Design using best-practice technology for ballot receiving, sorting, verification, preparation, scanning, and tabulation, using video monitoring, training ballot processing monitors, conducting post-election audits, and issuing public reports. By implementing these steps, mail-in elections will enjoy high levels of participation, security, and accountability at a level that in many instances, surpasses in-person voting.

While a majority of Americans support mail-in voting, many have little or no experience with it. Yet most favor the convenience provided by in-home voting, the potential for increased turnout, and greater transparency. While the move toward mail-in voting has been gaining favor over the last 20 years, COVID 19 and the possibility of foreign meddling have significantly accelerated use of mail-in voting.

The evidence is clear, mail-in voting deserves careful and timely consideration leading to its broad adoption across the states.

Jan Hillard, Ph.D., is data editor of KyForward and the NKyTribune and retired Faculty Emeriti of Northern Kentucky University.

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One Comment

  1. Emily Shelton says:

    Mr. Hillard undervalues the security issue. While it may now be true that widespread voter fraud with absentee voting is unusual, unrestricted absentee voting is an open invitation to fraud. No doubt, unscrupulous campaigns will see this delicious opportunity. Voters lose their supreme right to privacy, as employers, unions and others demand to see the voter’s ballot, or worse, stand over them as they fill it out. And there is the age-old practice of vote buying. Vote buyers would expect to not only see the ballot, but would probably deliver the ballots themselves before making payment. Nothing demands more vigilance than protecting our right of privacy as we enter voting booth.

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