To Hell With Absentee Ballots

Except when they don’t really matter – then they’re okey dokey.

A U.S. Postal Worker monitors packages on a conveyor belt at a processing and distribution center on April 29, 2020, in Oakland, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
A U.S. Postal Worker monitors packages on a conveyor belt at a processing and distribution center on April 29, 2020, in Oakland, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

With the bluster and propaganda of the political conventions in the rear view mirror we can turn our attention back to the things that really matter in life: fretting over operational details of the U.S. Postal Service, spiffing up our yards so they look nice when MS-13 members show up for the open house next door, and drinking to excess without a cable news soundtrack. 

The Democrats spent much of their convention hammering home the importance of voting—not just doing it, but doing it early, having a plan, and requesting a ballot right away if mail-in absentee is your thing. Republicans also talked a lot about the franchise, with speaker after speaker stressing the importance of an election where everyone votes and every vote counts. In the spirit of the four-day hallucinatory flight from reality that was the RNC, that last sentence may not withstand a fact check. 

It has been gratifying over the last month to watch Democrats (and some Republicans, though of course none from anywhere near Tennessee) push back against the Trump administration’s naked political and operational pillage of the postal service—an electoral stratagem so transparently cynical that the unqualified chump Trump put in charge had no choice but to walk some of it back when confronted under oath. Alas, “some” is the key qualifier here; postal mayhem aplenty still looms.

Making mail-in voting work for those who must rely on it is legal and political energy reasonably well spent. But Democrats should dial back the definition of must and put more emphasis on avoiding mail-in voting (outside states that already do it routinely) rather than deluding themselves into expecting it to work well this year everywhere. There are just too many risks for it to be a central electoral strategy. The reliably nonpartisan Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman cogently sums it up: mail-in voting poses for Democrats “unique uncertainty, including potential for postal chicanery, voter error, and rejected absentees that disproportionately hurt Dems.”

Avoiding mail-in voting means more of an emphasis on making sure that the largest possible number of people vote in-person. It means persuading everyone who can conceivably show up at a polling place (whether early or on the day) to decide that god dammit they are going to vote in person, and then giving them what they need to follow through. Democratic party officials should launch a big and visible effort to mobilize wealthy donors to open their wallets and fund whatever is needed to get Grandma to a poll to vote – a ride, a face shield, a chair, a box lunch. 

The reliably nonpartisan Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman cogently sums it up: mail-in voting poses for Democrats “unique uncertainty, including potential for postal chicanery, voter error, and rejected absentees that disproportionately hurt Dems.”

A concerted campaign to maximize in-person voting and minimize mail-in voting is especially important in places that matter most—the battleground states. And it is easiest to do in places with favorable rules offering expansive early voting opportunities. Most states have some form of in-person early voting or else do universal voting by mail, leaving fewer than ten that do neither. Most of those are solidly red or solidly blue; only two are genuine battlegrounds: Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. 

Pennsylvania lacks early voting as we think of it, but will for the first time this year allow voters to request and submit a no-excuse absentee ballot in one visit to a county election office, so it’s in-person early voting in miniature. Individual counties get to decide if they will make this easy by offering multiple locations. 

New Hampshire basically sucks—no early voting, and they don’t offer no-excuse absentee voting. On the upside, unlike in Tennessee, they accept valid student ID cards for voter identification from public and private colleges and high schools. Also on the upside, they have only four electoral votes. 

So while I encourage and admire the copious efforts of voting rights advocates to try to shame (or sue) states into expanding mail voting everywhere possible, it’s a mistake for Democrats to put too many eggs in the absentee ballot basket. Michelle Obama in her DNC speech put it well: “We have got to grab our comfortable shoes, put on our masks, pack a brown bag dinner and maybe breakfast too, because we’ve got to be willing to stand in line all night if we have to.”

If you can turn up at a polling precinct or an early voting site, even if you have to encase yourself in bubble wrap and smear it with disinfectant (granted, the visual here isn’t great), you should do it. Having a plan to vote is a good thing, but mail-in absentee voting should be plan B. And to hell with New Hampshire—unless Trump wins by four or fewer electoral votes, in which case fuck New Hampshire.