Toma: Why universal vote-by-mail is a solution in search of a problem

Posted 10/23/20

Mail voting is a popular mechanism for casting a ballot in the western U.S. Prior to 2020, of the states that mailed ballots directly to voters who had not requested them, many were Arizona’s …

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Toma: Why universal vote-by-mail is a solution in search of a problem

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Mail voting is a popular mechanism for casting a ballot in the western U.S. Prior to 2020, of the states that mailed ballots directly to voters who had not requested them, many were Arizona’s neighbors — Colorado, Utah, Washington, and Oregon.

Since the pandemic, California, Nevada and Montana have also been added to the list of all-mail states.

East of us, litigation has been filed in several states that would expand mail voting, and the Congressional legislation in the HEROES Act would require that every voter in the country be sent an unrequested blank ballot. As Arizona’s leaders, we should consider whether we want to be in the business of limiting voter choice by eliminating traditional, in-person voting in favor of all-mail elections.

In the Arizona House of Representatives, where I have served for three years, the Legislature blocked an attempt by Secretary of State Katie Hobbs to remove an in-person voting option in favor of all-mail elections in 2020. Our mixed experience with the Permanent Early Voting List shows why we were right to reject it.

While Arizona still offers in-person voting and requires an application to request an absentee ballot, voters can check a box to receive an absentee ballot automatically every year. Between 70% and 80% of voters do so. For many voters, this system works, but we have unfortunately seen negative consequences that would only be worsened in a universal vote-by-mail system.

For instance, earlier this year, prosecutors charged the 29-year-old son of State Representative Mitzi Epstein, accusing him of being registered on Arizona’s Permanent Early Voting List and voting in virtually every Arizona election since he turned 18. The problem is, he has not been a resident of Arizona for a decade.

While only residents are allowed to vote in Arizona’s elections, without the safeguard of a yearly absentee ballot application, it is impossible to continue verifying the voter’s residency. Unless voters actively deregister, they will continue receiving blank, voteable ballots in the mail, without further verification.

The problem would be made even worse if Arizona expanded mail voting into a fully mail-in election system. Voter registration rolls are saddled with names of voters who have either moved, are deceased, or are duplicated.

California, which mailed an unrequested ballot to every voter in the 2020 primary and will do so again in November, provides a case study on compromised rolls. In 2016, 83 blank, voteable ballots were mailed to one apartment in San Pedro, and a 2019 audit found almost 84,000 duplicate voter registrations due to a glitch in the registration system.

Unless California’s government acted quickly to remove those duplicates, which I have my doubts about, all 84,000 of those voters will receive at least two unrequested and unverifiable ballots in the mail during this year’s all-mail election. That does not include ballots sent out for former residents who remain active on the voter rolls.

Much has been said lately about the need for increased funding for the Post Office, but with or without a cash infusion, the best that the service can reasonably deliver is making sure mail arrives accurately and on time in 97% of instances. What about the remaining 3%? That mail is either lost, misdelivered, or delayed.

In a close election, 3% is all one candidate needs to declare an election day victory. The 2016 presidential nail-biter resulted in eight states — 125 electoral college votes — within a 3% margin of victory for either candidate.

The Post Office has a dubious track record on its performance in the 2020 primary elections. In Ohio’s April election, over 300 ballots in Butler County were misplaced by postal employees. By the time they were found and delivered, they were too late to be counted. In Brooklyn, New York, postal employees forgot to postmark ballots; as a result, per state law, one out of every five had to be tossed.

Whether due to the lack of reliability in the Post Office, or the inaccuracies in voter rolls, evidence shows that voters need and deserve the opportunity to cast their ballots in person, rather than being obligated to vote through the mail.

With more choices — early in-person voting, voting absentee by mail, or voting in-person on Election Day — voters will ultimately have more confidence in the results.

Having that confidence should be high on all our priority lists this November.

Editor’s note: Ben Toma is a Republican Candidate for the Arizona House representing Legislative District 22.

In the above commentary referencing Rep. Mitzi Epstein’s son voting, the Arizona Attorney General earlier in October found no indication Daniel Epstein violated Arizona’s voter residency laws.

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