December 1, 2021

Mail-in balloting debated

Voting method draws focus as 2020 election season gets under way

Photo illustration by S.N. Briere/staff reporter

All primary ballots this year will be cast as absentee ballots. Voters will mail ballots to the board of elections.

For the first time, Cortland County Legislator Sandra Price (D-Harford, Virgil) voted this year by mail, one of millions of voters across New York who voted by absentee for the first time for school budgets and will vote by absentee for the presidential primary on Tuesday.

For Price, the experience was quite delightful.

“It was very easy,” she said. “It came in the mail, I read it over like you would at the voting booths, filled it out at my leisure and put it in the mailbox and it was very easy.”

Steph Brown of Virgil did it for 15 years and plans to again this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I traveled for work extensively, so very rarely was I home in the fall,” she said. “I thought it was a great thing because my base of operation was in Woodbridge, New Jersey. It was easier for me to sign up and get an absentee ballot mailed to me.”

Absentee voting isn’t new, but this year’s presidential election has seen some officials, including President Donald Trump, igniting concerns over the security of voting by mail.

“Mail-in voting is not new and it’s not rare,” said Thomas Pepinsky, an associate professor of government at Cornell University. “Mail-in voting in many states has been the norm for decades.”

“I traveled for work extensively, so very rarely was I home in the fall,” she said. “I thought it was a great thing because my base of operation was in Woodbridge, New Jersey. It was easier for me to sign up and get an absentee ballot mailed to me.”

Not new, not rare

Mail-in voting or absentee voting first arose during the Civil War to allow soldiers from both sides to vote. Then laws were enacted to allow any voter to begin voting by mail, according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Election Data and Science Lab, which studies ways to improve voting and voter turnout. Absentee voting became significant again during World War II, when people went overseas to fight.

In 1980, California became the first state to allow no-excuse absentee ballot voting, meaning people could get an absentee ballot for any reason. By 2018, 27 states enacted no-excuse absentee laws, although New York was not one of them.
Then came the coronavirus pandemic, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order allowing anyone to get an absentee ballot for the June 23 primary to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Five states — Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Hawaii and Utah — automatically send registered voters an absentee ballot, reports the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But even though absentee voting has been going on for 160 years, Trump is raising skepticism over its security — voter fraud.

Voter fraud

However, Pepinksy said voter fraud of any method is extremely rare with no significant evidence that mail-in voting is more subject to fraud than other forms of voting.

The reason it’s rare isn’t hard to understand, he said — the benefits don’t outweigh the time and effort to commit voter fraud.

“Committing voter fraud is actually quite hard,” he said. “You have to work to vote twice.”

The fraudster would need to know someone else isn’t voting — either because the voter is dead or doesn’t want to — then would need to forge that person’s signature.

The fraudster would need to know and forge a lot of signatures.

“There’s not a lot of benefit,” he said. “There’s not a lot of votes you’re going to get out of that.”

On top of that, boards of election take precautions, including updating voter polls.
Gary Wood of Dryden said in a letter to the editor in the Cortland Standard that his wife, who is dead, had received a school board ballot. But the likelihood of that situation happening is rare, Pepinsky said.

“It’s not common for them to be out of date,” he said.

“Just because he got a ballot for his wife who was deceased doesn’t mean it was voter fraud,” said Tom Brown, the Cortland County Democratic commissioner.

Howe said the voter rolls are routinely updated using obituaries. But commissioners do find that people who don’t notify them when they move.

“If somebody moves, we don’t know that they move, so when they do move they should let us know,” Howe said.

But even if someone tried to commit voter fraud, the Board of Elections can view a person’s signature to determine if it was forged.

“With each voter, we have their voter registration form on file with their signatures, so we do have the ability to compare signatures,” Howe said.

Both Brown and Howe said they haven’t experienced voter fraud while working as the commissioners in Cortland County. Brown has been a commissioner for 12 years and Howe for 24 years.

Coercion? Favoritism?

However, some scholars disagree and say fraud is more prevalent for voting by mail than in-person voting, according to MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab.

One of the most well-known cases came in 1997 in Miami. An investigation found ballots had been doctored in the mayoral race, unsigned or signed by people who did not live in the city.

Fraud isn’t the only concern with voting by mail. Coercion may play a role, or people worry that absentee voting can lead to uninformed decisions, that mail-in voting favors a particular party or that the mail system itself can affect an election.

“During all-mail elections (and absentee voting), coercion by family members or others might occur,” states the National Conference of State Legislatures website.

In 1997, seven people were sentenced to prison and four put on probation for buying votes in two 1996 elections in Dodge County, Georgia, forcing the election results to be thrown out.

There are also concerns that those who vote by absentee often do so too early without all of the information available.

“Empirically, it’s important to note that the earliest voters tend to be the strongest partisans, and thus are less likely to be swayed by last-minute information,” states MIT’S Election Data and Science Lab.

Some people are afraid that vote by mail would give one party an advantage. However, Pepinsky said a study by Stanford University’s Institute for Economic Policy Research found neither the Democratic or Republican parties had an advantage.

Pepinsky said part of the concerns about absentee voting come because many people in the county and even country have never experienced voting by mail. In fact, Pepinsky said he voted by mail for the first time this year.

“I found it actually quite odd that I could vote by mail,” he said. “It was just very uncomfortable for me because I could never do it before.”


Howe and Brown could not specifically say how much is spent on elections in Cortland County because they vary by election. However, Howe said he does think there could be a cost savings to the county if it switched to mail-in voting.

“I think it’s a big saving, but apparently I’m a minority in my party,” Howe said. Mail-in voting doesn’t require inspectors to be hired or trained, doesn’t require buying, maintaining or hauling as many machines, or paying for wifi at polling sites.

“The cost comes down to postage and printing,” Howe said.

Increasing turnout

This year, school voters cast ballots by mail in New York. For the Cortland Enlarged City School District, voter turnout was significantly higher. More than 2,900 absentee ballots were returned, when typically, the district sees 500 to 550 voters, said Alicia Zupancic, clerk of the school board.

More people also asked for absentee ballots for the primary, Howe said, with 5,500 mailed out and 2,300 returned so far. In 2016, they received 1,646 absentee ballots.

In 2018, the Election Administration & Voting Survey by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission on a biennial basis found “68% of voters in states with permanent absentee laws voted with an absentee ballot,” states the MIT Election Data and Science Lab.

Pepinksy said the idea of having only in-person voting is a “New England town hall kind of approach to politics.”

“I don’t think that’s a realistic model for today’s America,” he said. “If we want people to participate in our politics, we should give them every opportunity to do so.”

Brown said before people decide whether voting by mail is for them, they should do their own research.

“Some people just buy into that hype that’s put out there,” she said. “Do your own research, don’t buy into the hype that’s on television.”