The parties are at war over an issue that has no clear winners.
President Trump has made mail-in ballots a political issue for the up-coming presidential election. He has laid false claims about potential voter fraud if states move to mail-in ballot voting as the coronavirus raises fears that voters will not be able to exercise their right to participate in the election by casting an in-person ballot. There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud. Earlier in the year in fact, Trump laid bare his motivations, saying elections that elections that allow mail-in ballots ‘doesn’t work out well for Republicans.’ This has become the conventional wisdom, but the research does not bare this out.
Who does benefit in switching to mail-in ballots?
Five states; Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington, have all mail-in elections. Recent research done by Stanford University and another study done by private research firm Pantheon Analytics studied Colorado and Utah elections find that moving over to all mail-in ballots had no partisan advantage for either party. The move did indeed increase voter participation overall, but any advantage was washed out. These studies were done with election data from before the pandemic though, and their results may not reflect who stands to gain in a post (or in the midst of a second wave) pandemic election. There has been several recent special elections such as California’s 25th Congressional district election that had to rely on mail-in ballots. The Republican won handily (9.8% point margin) in the Republican leaning district.
Why Democrats should want mail-in ballots.
In order to properly assess the chances mail-in ballots will swing the election one way or another we need a model. AAORP created a dynamic model in 2001 that suggests that switching to mail-in ballots mostly helps people who are already likely voters by making it easier for them to vote. This explains why there hasn’t been partisan advantage to switching over in the past. It is still too early to game out which party would win out if current likely voters all got out to vote (the state of pandemic will play a large part) but Democrats are hopeful given the President’s unpopularity and their generic ballot advantage (both of which could narrow by election day).
Democrats are also trying to prevent suppression efforts by the Republicans such as the case in Wisconsin last month where opportunistic Republicans forced an election to move forward while cities were grappling with outbreaks and social distancing concerns. Lines were blocks long as polling places had to be condensed due to poll worker shortages. That lead to an anemic turnout in urban Milwaukee, just 59% of its 2016 levels, and much of the state that ordered mail-in ballots were disenfranchised because of the extraordinary demand for absentee ballots meant some of them were sent too late to be filed by the election date. Switching to mail-in would be an insurance against particularly brazen attacks.
Why Republicans should want mail-in ballots.
Of course an election strategy that relies on opportunistic voter suppression in an uncertain local environment is a bad strategy. Down ballot Republicans shouldn’t assume that an election strategy that works for Trump necessarily will help them win. The Republicans should consider getting out their own base to be a positive, and mail-in ballots facilitate this, by making it easier to vote. Elderly voters in particular increase their vote share because they find it easier to mail-in their ballots rather than show up at a poll site. Conversely younger more Democratic leaning voters face challenges in keeping records up to date that could decrease their vote-share, particularly during a pandemic related upheaval where many of them might move to a different address.
Additionally absentee ballot applications are a treasure trove of data for campaigns who can spend their money targeting likely Republican voters who have an expressed interest in voting in November. Capitalizing on this data will probably be the party that is the most well funded going into the election which at this stage looks to be the Republicans.
What Trump stands to gain by kicking up mud.
Trump’s campaign would not hurt too much by switching to mail-in ballots either. His election strategy seems to be laser focus on the “missing white voters” in contested purple states. These voters are by definition not likely voters and as a group they might take a hit. Trump might have a read on these voters as more conspiracy minded than likely voters and he is simply feeding them what they want to hear in an environment that is awash with conspiratorial thinking. It would fit in as a reason why these people have been so demotivated to vote and non-college voters are more open to conspiracy theories, but I am not sold on this read. Conspiratorial thinking is not exclusive to right-wing groups, loathe as the left is to admit that. Particularly partisan conspiracies are a hit in right-leaning internet forums, but QAnon types seem to be hardcore partisans already, not the on-the-fence voters the President campaign wants to target. I could be wrong, I haven’t seen any good data on this.
It’s hard to game out exactly how this will affect the margins in purple states. Recent polls show Trump is pretty unpopular in purple states to the point where these marginal voters may not even matter. A sounder strategy may be to focus on becoming more popular in the state as a whole instead of focusing so heavily on these marginal voters, but I’m not Trump’s election strategist.
Alternatively, Trump may be stirring controversies for the sake of controversies. Trump has reached for this tool time and again for to divert attention away from whatever is dragging down his poll numbers at the moment. And it works. As an election strategy it worked for him last time, controversies made him the talk of cable news day in and day out, buying him a ton of free media. Biden on the other hand has been choked of media attention, and with the Democrats talking about virtual conventions, there may be no chance to break through between now and November. Being top of mind for voters could certainly backfire on Trump if the mood is “this is a referendum on Trump.”
In such an uncertain environment where 6 months out can feels like years, making strong predictions about who this will help and hurt is a fools errand. Mail-in ballots offer a measure of stability, that you will be able to get at least your voters out even if the pandemic worsens. Trump keeps betting against stability.