The politics of vote by mail

Written by Derek Monson

November 5, 2021

Politics has been compared to a pendulum, and for good reason. Political support can swing back and forth over time, sometimes predictably and sometimes not.

This has been the case when it comes to absentee voting policies, such as vote by mail (VBM). Whether nationally or at the state level, political support for absentee voting and VBM has been inconsistent over time.

National politics of vote by mail

Historically in America, VBM began as a voting method during the Civil War. According to one source, “from 1862 and 1865, 20 northern states changed laws requiring in-person voting to allow deployed soldiers to vote.” There was a desire to give Union soldiers on Civil War battlefields a say in who would lead the local, state and federal governments that they were fighting to support and protect.

Prior to this time “there was no precedent … for [voters] to cast ballots anywhere other than their own [] communities. … Absentee voting departed dramatically from familiar election norms.” Because it was a new way to decide who would wield governing power, it generated legal controversy and lawsuits. Some courts initially ruled that absentee voting policies were constitutional, while others did not. Ultimately, however, absentee voting and VBM won the legal battle.

But the legal rulings did not quash national partisan political debate over the new voting methods:

The issue quickly became partisan: as Republican candidates supported the cause and appealed to soldiers for their vote, Democrats feared that Republican military leadership would tamper with the results. They complained of Republican interference and accused them of trying to steal the vote and, as a result, were painted as anti-soldier and saw their popularity drop.

The initial debate over VBM-like policies drew support from the Republican Party and Republican politicians nationally and opposition from the Democratic Party and Democratic politicians. The concerns of opponents centered on the possibilities for fraud and an illegitimately won election. Partisan thinking accompanied these arguments: “Republicans, assuming that soldiers would vote for Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party, were in favor of such measures, while Democrats opposed the measures on the same assumption.” Therefore, “northern state legislatures that were dominated by Republicans passed soldier absentee voting of some sort while legislatures dominated by Democrats did not.”

The politics became multi-layered during the next push for VBM-like policies, which again stemmed from a desire to allow American soldiers to vote absentee – this time during World War II:

As was the case during the Civil War, much of the resistance to enfranchising deployed soldiers was based on assumptions that the soldier vote would favor the incumbent president. While during the Civil War it was the Democrats who were worried, in World War II it was the Republicans. Added to the partisan resistance were the deeply ingrained segregationist motives of most southern Democrats fearful that expanded voting rights for soldiers would limit a state’s ability to restrict voting privileges for African Americans. The combination of the southern Democrat resistance with the northern Republicans was enough to limit the effectiveness of federal intervention in voting rights for soldiers and sailors.

So the partisan dynamics around absentee voting partially flipped during World War II relative to the Civil War because the sitting president’s political party had flipped. But those dynamics remained similar in the sense that the Democratic Party in the South had concerns about absentee voting because of the party’s pro-segregation stance at the time.

In contrast, modern-day politics around VBM reflect a complete swing of the partisan pendulum compared with the Civil War. Many in the Republican Party have embraced the criticisms of former President Donald Trump about the security and wisdom of VBM. Many in the Democratic Party have sought to support the expansion of VBM undertaken for the 2020 elections in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This description is a simplification at some level – some Republicans support VBM, and some Democrats do not hold VBM expansion as a significant priority. But it generally captures the partisan dynamic. And despite states’ 160-plus years of administering various forms of absentee and VBM policies, many of the policy debate points – concerns about election security and the possibility of fraud – have not changed.

State politics of vote by mail

The politics around VBM in Utah are different than those nationally. Utah was an early adopter of expanding VBM relative to most states; in 2012 the state authorized counties that desired it to hold all-mail elections. Even before the pandemic forced the issue in 2020, Utah had implemented VBM for most voters in 2019. Support for VBM and the expansion of VBM has typically been bipartisan, and Utah’s early adoption of VBM has given election officials significant practical experience protecting the security and integrity of VBM.

Since 2020, some have questioned VBM in Utah. This has begun to show political consequences.

In the 2021 legislative session, a resolution praising the success of Utah’s election workers in administering the 2020 elections was substituted in the Utah House of Representatives to remove positive references to Utah’s VBM program. In October 2021, a state legislator (who since resigned) led an election security rally and proposed to a legislative committee to eliminate VBM as an option for the vast majority of Utah voters.

In response, election officials at both state and local levels have sought to help Utah voters and policymakers understand the more than 20 layers of security in place to protect the integrity of all voting, including VBM. They have also proposed ideas for additional election security measures to further bolster voter confidence in the results of Utah elections. It is expected that legislation touching on these issues will come forward during the 2022 legislative session.

Conclusion

Understanding the politics of VBM at the state and national levels is an important element of understanding VBM policy and its expansion over time. It is helpful to recognize the role of shifting partisan interests in these political dynamics. Political philosophy and policy facts have their role and influence, as well. But raw partisan politics are a significant factor when it comes to VBM policies.

For both national political parties, the pendulum has swung between embracing VBM and rejecting it. And those political shifts manifest themselves in states like Utah. Fortunately, Utah policymakers and voters can learn from the political and policy debates of the past. Further, we have more practical experience implementing VBM than other states.

These factors should allow Utah to continue properly administering VBM into the future, regardless of where the political pendulum swings next.

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