Background and History
Voting-by-mail received newfound attention during the 2020 election because of safety concerns related to in-person voting during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, voting-by-mail or voting by absentee ballot (the terms are considered interchangeable) has a history dating back to the Colonial era in the United States.
In 17th-century Massachusetts, men could vote from home if their homes were “vulnerable to Indian attack,” according to historian Alex Keyssar’s book, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. The votes of some Continental Army soldiers were presented in writing “as if the men were present themselves” in Hollis, New Hampshire in 1775 during the American Revolution.
During the 1864 presidential election, Union soldiers voted in camps and field hospitals “under the supervision” of clerks or state officials. During World War I, nearly all states let soldiers vote from afar “at least during war time,” according to Keyssar’s book. And it was in that same time period that people with a non-military, work-related reason for being away from home on Election Day started to be able to vote absentee, as well.
In the decades that followed, people who voted by mail generally had to have a specific reason for not being able to vote in person on Election Day. That began to change in 1978, when California became the first state to allow voters to apply for an absentee ballot without having to provide an excuse.
Prior to the current pandemic, five states were already holding entirely mail-in elections — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah. Twenty-nine states and Washington, D.C. allowed “no excuse” mail-in absentee voting. Sixteen states allowed voters to cast a ballot by mail if they had an excuse. In the 2016 presidential election, about one in four voters cast their votes via ballots mailed to them.
Studies have shown vote-by-mail to be consistently free of fraud. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found only 0.00006% of 250 million votes by mailed ballots nationwide were fraudulent. Additionally, scholars at Stanford University analyzing 1996-2018 data in California, Utah and Washington found vote-by-mail did not advantage one political party over another.
In 2020, many seniors chose vote-by-mail in an effort to exercise their right to vote and stay safe during the pandemic. In fact, 41 percent of voters age 50-64 and 55 percent of voters over age 65 voted by mail in the 2020 election. The safety and convenience of this method of voting may prove equally attractive in future elections.
What can we learn from states who exclusively vote-by-mail?
Currently, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Utah and Hawaii use mail balloting as their primary method of voting. Oregon, the pioneer in this area, has sent out more than 100 million mail-in ballots since 2000, and has documented only about a dozen cases of proven fraud. That amounts to 0.0001 percent of all votes cast.
Senior citizens benefit from the ease and comfort of vote-by-mail. Those who are immobile or sick can request mail ballots, as can those who cannot drive or lack access to mass transit. Mail ballots represent a way for those individuals to exercise their constitutional rights at election time in a convenient way. In fact, over 60 percent of seniors age 65 and older living in states which currently use all mail-in voting systems support moving all elections to mail-in voting.
A recent study by the Vote at Home Institute focusing on the impact of Colorado’s shift to vote-by-mail as its primary means of voting compared turnout among Colorado voters born between 1930 and 1945 to the same population in neighboring states, and found turnout approximately seven percent higher in Colorado.
Colorado currently boasts one of the highest voter turnout rates in the nation. All-mail voting in Colorado increased voter turnout by 9.4 percentage points overall. The turnout effect for Coloradans who are categorized as likely Republicans or likely Democrats is almost identical – an increase of approximately 8 percentage points. Independents experience the most significant turnout boost of nearly 12 percentage points.
Some States are Trying to Limit Vote-by-Mail
The National Committee believes that the best system of voting is one that encourages the maximum number of legitimate votes cast, with safety and convenience being two essential pillars of such a system. Given the advantages and encouraging results of the nation’s vote-by-mail experience, and the paucity of evidence of voter fraud, the National Committee questions why so many states are moving in the opposite direction – to discourage vote-by-mail. As of February 19, 2021, according to the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan law and policy organization, there are 253 bills with provisions that restrict voting access pending in 43 states. More than a quarter of these voting and election bills address absentee voting procedures.
The legislative restrictions on vote-by-mail procedures include eliminating no-excuse mail voting, making it more difficult to request absentee ballots, restricting who can assist voters with their absentee ballots and requiring mail ballots be notarized and returned in person. Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania are among the states proposing the most restrictions. All of these proposals constitute an attack on the ability of seniors to exercise their right to vote. This is particularly ironic given the fact that some GOP legislators expanded vote-by-mail to capture the senior vote which has generally sided with Republicans in this century. In Oregon and Washington, Republican legislatures championed the transition to vote-by-mail. Republicans in Arizona pioneered the state’s mail-in balloting system, which now accounts for about 80 percent of the state’s vote. Older Republican voters in Florida have dominated absentee voting for the last 20 years.
Why Seniors Need Vote-by-Mail
As the population of the country ages, the need for a vote-by-mail option becomes more critical. As lifespans become increasingly longer, seniors will become increasingly infirm and immobile and their constitutional right to vote will increasingly be protected by a liberal vote-by-mail alternative.
H.R. 1, the For the People Act of 2021, recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, contains a set of national mail-in voting standards, guaranteeing no-excuse mail-in voting. The act requires states to give every voter the option to vote by mail, calls for prepaid postage for all election materials, and state-provided drop boxes for federal races. This guarantee will provide seniors with the assurance that they will be able to participate in future elections.
National Committee Supports Vote-by-Mail
The 2020 election has proven the importance of no excuse vote-by-mail to seniors. The National Committee endorses H. R. 1 and all efforts to assist seniors in exercising their constitutional right to vote. The National Committee firmly opposes efforts by selected states to narrow vote-by-mail protocols and infringe on seniors’ rights to have a voice in their government.
Government Relations and Policy, March 2021