Eric Davis: Mail-in ballots change campaigning
As of Monday afternoon, almost 82,000 Vermont voters had already requested a mail ballot for the Aug. 11 primary election. With nearly a month to go until the primary, mail ballot turnout this year could well exceed the 119,000 who voted by mail and in person in Aug. 2016, the last time the governor was not running for re-election and there were competitive primaries in both the Democratic and Republican parties.
With both the Secretary of State’s Office and municipal clerks encouraging voters to request early ballots, a very high proportion of this year’s primary ballots are expected to be cast before Aug. 11. Voting by mail in Vermont is simple, safe and secure. Voters may request their ballot now by going to mvp.vermont.gov, or by contacting their town or city clerk.
Vermont will be one of seven states where election officials will send actual ballots, not just ballot applications, to all registered voters in advance of the November election. The other states that will be sending ballots to all voters are California, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington. Several of these states have been conducting completely or primarily all-mail elections for several cycles with no evidence of fraud or other attempts to manipulate the system. Indeed, Oregon has had all-mail elections since 2000, and the system is widely supported by all political parties in that state.
In addition to the seven states that will mail ballots to all voters, as many as 35 states will permit voters to request a mail ballot this year without having to offer a reason. Fewer than 10 states will have restrictions on mail or early voting, with such ballots having to be notarized or limited to those who can present a medical reason for not being able to vote in person on Election Day. Experts estimate that over 60 percent of all voters nationally will cast their presidential election ballots before Nov. 3.
There are several consequences of all or primarily all-mail and absentee elections that will be particularly important this year. First, many voters will have their ballots in hand well before Election Day, and may choose to return them soon after they receive them. This means that candidates must begin their broadcast and digital advertising, social media campaigns, and other communications efforts earlier in the campaign than if most of the vote was going to be cast in person on Election Day.
Having to advertise early is often a challenge for candidates running against incumbents and in open-seat races. These candidates normally have lower levels of name recognition, and smaller campaign treasuries, than incumbents seeking re-election. This challenge is particularly present in campaigns with large numbers of competitive candidates, such as the four-way race for the Democratic nomination for the open Vermont lieutenant governor’s position.
Close to half of the states will begin mailing absentee general election ballots to voters 45 days in advance of Nov. 3, which would be during the third week of September. This year’s presidential debates are scheduled for Sept. 29, Oct. 15 and Oct. 22. Many voters will have returned their ballots before the second and third of those debates.
Candidates will have a shorter time to make their pitches to voters this year than in a typical fall. This may explain some of the currently frantic nature of President Trump’s campaign, as he tries to close the gap that nearly all polls show between him and former Vice President Biden.
The second major impact of the move to mostly mail voting is that election results will take longer to release. The time needed to process absentee ballots is longer than for ballots cast at a polling place. Voters, and candidates, may have to wait several days, or even weeks, for official results to be released, especially in those states such as California that allow ballots returned by mail to be postmarked as late as Election Day.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
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