The Civil War of 1860 paved the way for mail-in or remote voting in the U.S. As the COVID-19 situation worsens, the controversy regarding this system has been increasing rapidly.
The system was developed in 1864 when soldiers on the battlefields wanted to cast their vote in the presidential elections that year. The procedure included registration of eligible voters on the battlefield and picking of De facto election judges and clerks from within the troops. The voting rights were extended to the people who did their duties far away from the polls for the first time. This system, though, faced public scepticism and significant legal challenges.
This procedure of voting, almost 150 years later, has become relevant as states have to urgently reassess the in-person voting system following the warning about the second wave of infections and crowded polling booths might pose to be the means of this spread. The United States is gearing up for the upcoming presidential election and simultaneously, voting by mail and the costs of such a system are being scrutinized at all levels.
The mail-in voting system used in the U.S.
In the United States, two methods of mailing system are used- 1) Absentee ballots for people who are unable to physically visit polling booths to vote and 2) Vote by mail- an option available to all Americans.
Currently, 30 states of the U.S. have adopted “no-excuse absentee balloting” where anyone can request for an absentee ballot while in some states, voters need a valid reason of illness or temporarily being out-of-station to be able to avail the absentee ballot. In the year 2000, Oregon became the first state that switched to fully vote-by-mail elections and was later joined by four other states. California is in process of joining the club.
In the face of COVID-19, voters of every state other than Texas and Mississippi have the option of the absentee ballot or vote by mail to cast their votes and many states are gearing up to do the same for the November general elections. However, the Trump administration claims that mail-in voting will promote fraudulence and favour the Democratic Party.
Voter fraud and controversies- then and now
Between 1862 and 1865, 20 northern states of the U.S. changed their laws regarding in-person voting to let soldiers vote by mail. The issue was supported by Republican candidates whereas the Democratic candidates opposed the system alleging Republican interference and manipulation of votes and thus, brought upon themselves the tag of being anti-soldier. As the supreme courts of nine states heard the challenges to vote-by-mail, the question of remote voting being unconstitutional, grew to cause four states to strike down the laws.
Currently, numerous anti-fraud protections for mail-in voting include secure drop boxes, signature verification of voter and address confirmation. There has been no evidence of fraudulent mail-in balloting in the recent past. In the 2016 presidential elections, almost 33% of the votes were cast by mails. President Trump himself votes by absentee ballot in Florida. A recent Stanford study examining elections from 1996 to 2018 found no partisan advantage in mail-in voting.