Column: Will Democracy Seem Lost in the Mail?

News & Politics

The 2020 campaign has been so contorted by coronavirus that the Democrats and the Republicans are still figuring out how on Earth they’ll hold a “virtual convention.” Now imagine how it could make a mess out of November.

As President Trump bizarrely tweeted about delaying the election, the media are starting to admit that mail-in voting might not turn out very well. People inherently know from experience that trusting the U.S. Postal Service with their vote sounds sketchy. Almost everyone has lost something they sent in the mail.

A month ago, The New York Times was throwing the usual darts at Trump for tweeting that mail-in voting would lead to fraud. They were spewing “fact checks” in staunch defense of the integrity of mail-in voting.

Then, reality intruded. It wasn’t just the Times publishing the story “Mail Carrier in West Virginia Pleads Guilty to Attempted Election Fraud.”

They were forced to report from their own city. The headline was blunt on July 17: “3 Weeks After Primary, N.Y. Officials Still Can’t Say Who Won Key Races: Tens of thousands of absentee ballots in New York are still uncounted and many races have yet to be called. What will November look like?”

Two Times reporters lamented it was “absurd” that ballots had been barely counted: “In the 12th Congressional District, where Representative Carolyn B. Maloney is fighting for her political life against her challenger, Suraj Patel, only 800 of some 65,000 absentee ballots had been tabulated.” Even now, the AP hasn’t declared a winner between these Democrats.

This does not inspire confidence. It leaves too much time for cynical conspiracies about manipulating the results.

The first and foremost reason for these delays is the number of absentee ballots: more than 400,000 were mailed for the June primary in New York City, compared to just 76,000 counted in the city in the 2008 presidential election. Now imagine this deluge, nationwide. Do we really want to wait weeks to figure out who won which races?    

CBS News also attempted to explain how mail-in voting may not be ideal. Morning co-host Tony Dokoupil reported that they attempted to mail 100 “ballots” to a post-office box in Philadelphia. The early results were terrible: “Twenty-one percent of our votes hadn’t materialized after four days.” That number eventually improved after CBS begged postal workers for assistance, but they concluded with a shocking three percent failure rate.

Dokoupil concluded: “That means three people who tried to vote by mail in our mock election were, in fact, disenfranchised by mail. In a close election, three percent could be pivotal, especially in what’s expected to be a record year for mail-in voting.”

This kind of journalism looks like an attempt to test the system “without fear or favor.” CBS took the chance to experiment with it, and then shared the results even when they weren’t inspiring, at a time when reporters have stormed around saying there was “no evidence” that elections might be hampered.

Voting is a right and an honor, and in this year, people have risked their health and stood in long lines to participate in our democracy. The prospects for an orderly election where the people can have confidence in the results are looking grim.

In 1984, I cast my first presidential vote for Ronald Reagan with an absentee ballot mailed home to Wisconsin. My father regretted to inform me, after Reagan won in a landslide, that my vote wasn’t counted. That wasn’t heartbreaking, but if this election gets messy and it isn’t a landslide, we’re going to have heartbreak, angst, and rage. 

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