HomeRegular FeaturesCivics 101Civics 101: Pros and Cons of Ballot-by-mail

Civics 101: Pros and Cons of Ballot-by-mail

Americans have been using absentee (mail-in) ballots since the Civil War. Since that time, Federal laws have required states to allow by-mail voting for military and overseas voters. Today, we have five states that vote entirely by mail, and many states allow mail-in ballots for a variety of ‘excuses’. In the 2016 election, about one in four votes were cast in this manner. 

With all the fuss about COVID voting, it is important to remember why and how the system was designed to work. Many states believe vote-by-mail is more convenient, and questions remain about the need for it based on health concerns. If we remove conflicting opinions about flu transmission from the discussion, following are some general observations about the process. 


  • Media and polling tell us there will likely be long lines at the polls, so mailing your vote can be done at your leisure, in your own home. 
  • Allows senior, homebound, or infirm citizens to exercise their right without arranging for transportation or physical support. 
  • Stanford University studied elections 1996-2018 and found no partisan advantage. 
  • A Presidential task force, convened in 2016 found so little fraud that it was disbanded without issuing a report. Between 2000 and 2012, the News21 election database recorded 2,068 of alleged election fraud. While absentee ballots were the most prevalent (24%), this amounted to 491 cases in 12 years. Documented cases were deemed “individual” rather than systemic. 
  • Studies in mail-only states show voter turnout increased by 10 percent when they converted. American Politics Quarterly says “The main effect…is increasing the magnitude rather than changing the composition of voters.”
  • It’s cheaper. Jurisdictions save up to 40 percent of their election costs for poll workers and machinery. 


  • Risk of fraud. Ballots may be cast without witnesses, providing opportunities for impersonation, or coercion by family, employers, union or church leaders, etc. 
  • Voter registration databases are known for volumes of inaccuracies, including deceased voters, relocation, felony convictions, or otherwise inactive. In 2018, California was sued over maintaining 1.5 million inactive voter files.  
  • Increased turnout is temporary. In Oregon, voter turnout rose temporarily as a result of the novelty of the first vote by mail type of election, but subsequently reverted to previous levels.
  • It costs more to set up, requires more maintenance. Mail is cheaper in the long run, but there are significant costs and challenges associated with the initial establishment of a vote-by-mail system. States will need up-to-date addresses, tracking systems, printing costs, and verification methods; systems that should have been initiated with greater lead time and planning, rather than as an improvisation due to COVID concerns.
  • Citizens will lose the civic tradition and connection that comes from group activity; going to polling places with neighbors, voting with, and for, their community. 
  • Mail delivery and literacy rates are not uniform across the country. In-person voting centers have people to assist with questions. 
  • Slows down the count. States will need to establish consistency in deadlines so counting does not continue for days or weeks after the election. Unlike city elections, which enable office holders to remain until an election takes place, the President’s term will be (Constitutionally) over on January 20, 2021. 

Other sources: Brookings Institute, NPR, The Thread Weekly, Texas.gov, Social Science Journal

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