The Vote-by-Mail Switcheroo.

AuthorGlastris, Paul
PositionEditor's Note

It's hard to imagine, given the right wing's freak-out about vote by mail, but when the Washington Monthly first championed the idea a decade ago, the biggest pushback we got was from the left. Democratic operatives assumed that mailing every registered voter a ballot would advantage the GOP because most voters who utilized absentee ballots were right-leaning. Republicans were not full-throated fans of the idea, but neither were they hostile. Quite a few red states in the 2000s and 2010s made mail voting easier.

Beginning in 2012, the Monthly published a series of stories--many by contributing editor Phil Keisling, who pioneered vote by mail as Oregon secretary of state--to persuade progressives that their worries were misplaced. Vote by mail, we argued, not only boosts overall turnout, which is good for democracy generally; it does so disproportionately among low-propensity voters, especially young ones, whom Democrats most need to mobilize. And while there are plenty of low-propensity white working-class Republican voters, too--which is why studies show that vote by mail doesn't advantage one party over another--it was in the Democrats' interest, we said, to catch up with Republicans by reforming electoral laws and procedures to get more mailed-out ballots in the hands of their voters.

Slowly, our efforts began to bend the curve of progressive opinion--especially after Keisling and I helped found the non-profit National Vote at Home Institute to provide full-time research and bipartisan advocacy for the idea. By 2020, Utah (a red state) and Hawaii (a blue state) had joined Oregon, Washington, and Colorado in instituting universal vote by mail, as had 15 counties in California.

But what hypercharged the issue was the coronavirus pandemic. Suddenly, the prospect of polling places as disease vectors swept away any lingering partisan doubts among Democratic officials. Plenty of their GOP colleagues felt the same way.

But one prominent Republican did not. On March 30, 2020, with the pandemic shutting down the economy and polls showing him likely to lose to Joe Biden, Donald Trump made the first of what would become a torrent of lies about efforts to expand vote by mail. For instance, he claimed they would end the Republican Party and lead to massive fraud--lies Russian propaganda repeated. His own campaign manager warned Trump that bad-mouthing vote by mail could hurt his re-election chances by scaring Republican voters from using it. But it...

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