Opinion guest column

It’s time to expand absentee ballot access

This effective reform will enhance our democratic electoral system

Popular participation in elections is crucial to the proper functioning of a democratic republic like our United States. In light of the current pandemic, this participation is threatened. Both voters and poll workers are afraid of going out to polling locations where they might be infected by COVID-19. This was evident in the recent primary elections in Wisconsin, in which turnout fell significantly relative to that of the 2016 primary elections. While some of this reduction may be due to less competitive presidential primaries in 2020 compared to 2016, there was still a high profile State Supreme Court election this year. We can reasonably conclude that the COVID-19 pandemic likely played a major role in reducing turnout.

No-excuse absentee ballot voting would help maintain turnout levels during this pandemic as well as increase turnout levels in general, particularly among low-turnout groups of potential voters. 

Many possible barriers stand in the way of voting at a polling booth. For example, some people are busy on Election Day with work, childcare, or other activities they cannot afford to step away from. Others are not able to get to their polling booth because they lack private transportation or because they are far from public transportation routes. As such, giving people the option of no-excuse absentee ballot voting should increase turnout levels, especially among low-turnout voter groups. 

Currently, five states have all-mail elections (in which all registered voters get mailed a ballot): Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah. 26 more states (along with the District of Columbia) allow any registered voter to cast an absentee ballot with no excuse required. Finally, the remaining states permit absentee ballots for particular reasons (such as a voter being absent from their home county on Election Day). Despite the recent partisan tensions around voting by mail reported on in the media, all-mail elections and no-excuse absentee voting has been implemented in both blue and red states, and has received support from both sides of the aisle. Additionally, recent research shows that voting by mail does not tip elections towards a specific political party.

Empirically, there is mixed evidence on the impact that expanded absentee ballot access has on overall turnout, with some studies even finding slightly lower overall turnout. However, it does appear that such reforms have increased turnout both in low-turnout elections (like special elections) and among low-turnout groups of potential voters.

Opponents of absentee ballot reforms raise the issue that potentially increasing voter fraud and decreasing security could result from increasing reliance on absentee ballots. Evidence suggests, however, that voter fraud is essentially negligible, with regards to expanded absentee ballot access. There are also a variety of measures, such as identification verification, secure drop-off locations, and post-ballot audits, that would strengthen the security of absentee ballot voting.

Expanding absentee ballot access is more important than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic. This reform allows voters to participate at home, thereby reducing the risk that they or poll workers are infected. This boost helps maintain turnout levels and shores up our democratic republic in light of the current crisis. No-excuse absentee voting is an important step in the right direction not only for today’s situation, but also to expand voting access for years to come. 

This article was authored by members of MITVote, a nonpartisan group of students whose goal is to engage an active voter community on campus.

Seamus Lombardo is a graduate student in Course 16 and the Graduate Co-Chair of MITVote.

Kelsey Merrill is a sophomore in Course 6 and the Undergraduate Co-Chair of MITVote.

Chad Qian is a senior in Courses 14 and 18 and a member of MITVote.

Eva Anderson is a junior in Course 2 and a member of MITVote.

Eva Then is a sophomore in Course 11 and a member of MITVote.

Varsha Sandadi is a freshman and a member of MITVote​.