Mail-in ballots now central feature of election

After questioning their legitimacy, Trump suddenly a fan -- in Florida

IT’S NOW CLEAR that mailed ballots will assume a prominent role in the November presidential election. The only question is whether that role ends up being to helpfully expand access to the franchise to millions of Americans wary of heading to polling places during a pandemic, or to create mass chaos and uncertainty about the election. It could also do some of both.

The Washington Post says at least 77 percent of American voters will be able to cast ballots by mail in November, a seismic shift in how presidential elections are decided. Such an enormous change is raising anxiety levels among election officials responsible for managing the process.

Weeks after two tightly contested June 23 congressional primaries in New York City, officials had yet to declare winners in the race. (One of the two races was finally called yesterday.) Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other officials traded charges about who was at fault. The US Postal Service came in for criticism over its ability to handle a deluge of mailed ballots — concerns that have only intensified amid reports of a nationwide slowdown in mail delivery. Some voters only received ballots the day before they were due, and officials had trouble determining which ballots were too late to be counted because postage was prepaid and many ballots lacked a postmark date.

“This election is a canary in the coal mine,” one of the congressional candidates said, suggesting it does not bode well for the November election.

The political data website FiveThirtyEight tried to get a handle on how things might go in the fall by looking at all the experience with mailed ballots since the pandemic erupted in March. It looked at the 37 states plus Washington, DC, that have held presidential primaries or statewide elections since March. The first conclusion to draw is that states attempting to get voters to cast ballots by mail were “wildly successful” at getting them to do so. The analysis found that in 25 of the 35 states for which such data are available, a majority of ballots were cast by mail. On the whole, the mailed ballot option seems to boost overall turnout.

While there were problems with mailed ballots not being received by voters and other issues related to remote voting, one of the biggest problems encountered was long lines at polling places, as states reduced the number of in-person locations to vote. Last month, Newton’s city clerk told CommonWealth he was busy recruiting younger poll workers for the fall as many of the city’s regular poll workers were opting out of working this year because they are in older, higher-risk age categories.

Massachusetts has sent all 4.6 million registered voters applications to receive mail-in ballots for the September 1 primary and November 3 general election.

Looming over the whole mailed ballot issue has been President Trump’s incessant railing against the practice. He has continually lobbed the unfounded charge that mail-in ballots will result in massive voter fraud, setting the stage for questioning the election results.

His attacks have befuddled some leaders of the Republican Party, which has developed a better vote-by-mail operation than Democrats. Trump, never hobbled by the need for consistency, suddenly seems to have picked up on this. Yesterday, in a complete 180-degree turn, he declared that Florida — where polls show a tight race and where he’s counting on older voters who may be reluctant to head to polling places — was singularly well-prepared to oversee mail-in-voting, and he encouraged his supporters to cast votes there by mail.

With Trump, of course, what’s good for the goose is often dreadful for the gander, so his  campaign and the Republican National Committee also filed suit late yesterday to block Nevada officials from mailing all voters a ballot.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg suggests that if Trump is so concerned about the legitimacy of the election, “why not, you know, do something to assure the election is conducted properly?”

“There’s nothing stopping Trump from pushing a massive effort to, say, gear up the US Postal Service to handle an increased volume of mail during the election period,” writes Goldberg. “Instead, the donor he appointed to run the USPS has eliminated overtime for postal workers, virtually ensuring delivery delays. Trump could also use the same emergency powers he’s used to acquire ventilators to buy secure ballot drop boxes for the states.”

Of course, that presumes that Trump is concerned with minimizing chaos, when that’s often seemed the closest thing to a governing principle of his tenure.