Is Voting a Right or a Risk?

Tennessee’s leaders must expand access to voting by mail

(Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, Gov. Bill Lee said he will not allow expanded mail-in ballots. “What we want to do in this state is remove a reason to have fear about going to the polling booths,” Lee said. While planning to reopen the state is a complex undertaking, removing any fear of in-person polling is simple: Expanding vote by mail. Voting by mail is the most responsible choice to keep Tennesseans healthy, save taxpayer money, and protect voting. 

Colorado and Utah are at the forefront of voting by mail. Under Colorado’s universal vote by mail system (UVBM), every registered voter receives a ballot to mail back to the state or deposit at a polling place, and in-person voting remains an option for those who wish to do it. Utah allows all voters to vote absentee without an excuse. Tennessee should follow these states’ leads by allowing no-excuse absentee voting, mailing a ballot to every registered voter, and maintaining in-person voting where it is safe. 

Voting by mail saves states money. By reducing polling personnel and electronic equipment, states can save $6 per voter per election, according to the Pew Research Center. After Colorado moved to a vote by mail system, election costs decreased by an average of 40%, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Voting in person unnecessarily exposes voters to COVID-19. During Wisconsin’s April 7 primary election, more than 50 people who worked or voted in person tested positive for the novel coronavirus in that state. Tennessee can learn from Wisconsin’s example, and Tennesseans deserve better than to sacrifice their health so they can vote. 

I know there are arguments against voting by mail, including that it leads to voter fraud, unfairly benefits Democrats, and leads to higher turnout, which hurts Republicans. These ideas are rarely rooted in facts.

Elizabeth Madeira (campaign photo by Brian Copelan)
Elizabeth Madeira (Campaign photo by Brian Copeland)

Voting by mail does not necessarily benefit Democrats over Republicans. An expansive study of Colorado’s 2014 election found Republicans outperformed estimated turnout by a slightly higher margin than Democrats. That year, Republicans won three out of four statewide races and Republican Cory Gardner beat a Democratic incumbent for Senate. Utah expanded vote by mail in 2016; it still has two Republican senators, three of its four members of the U.S. House are Republicans, and Republicans hold a trifecta on state government. 

Some say increasing access to voting by mail unfairly benefits Democrats by increasing turnout. Frank LaRose, Ohio’s GOP secretary of state, said, “I reject this notion…when people say it’s not good for Republicans when there’s high turnout. The highest turnout presidential election we ever had [in Ohio] was 2016. The highest turnout gubernatorial election we ever had was 2018.” Both elections delivered Republican wins for the presidency and Governor’s Mansion, respectively. 

Here is the truth about voter fraud in Tennessee: it is extremely rare. According to the Heritage Foundation, there was one case of voter fraud in Tennessee in 2018. In 2016, there were 42 reports of voter fraud out of 4.3 million votes cast in the election that sent Donald Trump to the White House and kept Tennessee under Republican leadership. 

There is no evidence voting by mail leads to either higher turnout or voter fraud, the latter of which remains extremely rare.

Tennessee’s leaders must allow any voter to vote absentee without an excuse. Mark Goins, the state elections coordinator, told the Associated Press yesterday fear of contracting coronavirus does not meet the criteria for voting by mail. This view is too simplistic. 

Tennessee currently has some of the most stringent restrictions for who can request an absentee ballot. According to the nonpartisan Brennan Center, only 16 states require voters to have an excuse before casting an absentee ballot. Why can’t Tennessee follow the leads of the 34 states and the District of Columbia who do not require an excuse for absentee? 

Tennessee must expand mail-in voting in light of COVID-19 because it is fiscally responsible, keeps us healthy, and has no partisan benefit. Our health—both our physical wellbeing and the health of our republic—depends on our leaders’ courage to meet this challenge.