Two Weeks Later as COVID Surges, Remind Us… Why Was Mail-in Voting So Important?
We are now two weeks removed from Election Day 2020, and there are many aspects of the election that are still very much in doubt. Joe Biden appears likely to be our next president, but President Trump has still not conceded defeat and indeed has pathways to victory. Control of the U.S. Senate won’t be determined until early-January when two run-off elections are conducted for both Senate seats in Georgia, and there are still seven races in the House of Representatives that remain undecided. But with cases of COVID19 surging across the country, there is one thing we have learned for certain: the unprecedented amount of mail-in voting implemented by various states throughout the country likely did nothing to curb the spread of COVID-19, which was the sole purpose of those measures.
In-person voting on Election Day presented unique health risks for our states’ electorates, we were told. So much so, in fact, that many states went to extraordinary lengths to minimize, or even eliminate, such voting. Therefore, consider the examples of three such states – one red state (Florida), one purple state (Pennsylvania), and one blue state (New Jersey). Let’s examine the degree of mail-in balloting that occurred in each state, and the subsequent results of new cases of COVID-19 in those states since the election.
In-person voting was held in both Florida and Pennsylvania on Election Day, but both states offered mail-in voting that required voters to request such ballots. There were just under 11 million total votes cast in Florida, of which 1.3 million were mail-inballots, meaning that approximately 88% of Florida voters cast their ballots in-person. In Pennsylvania, mail-in voting was significantly higher, likely due in large part to the extensive effort by many Pennsylvania politicians, particularly Democrats, encouraging citizens to opt for the mail-in method of voting. As a result, Pennsylvania had over 2.6 million mail-in votes cast (double that of Florida) out of a total of 6.8 million ballots that have been counted, meaning there were only 61% of voters that voted in-person in the state.
In New Jersey, meanwhile, there were virtually no in-person votes that were cast. The only ballots available in the state were mail-in ballots, and every registered voter was sent a ballot to their residence; unsolicited. Voters had the option of putting those ballots in the regular mail with postage-paid envelopes; bringing them directly to strategically located, secured drop-boxes throughout the voters’ county; or dropping them off at their normal polling station on Election Day. The only exceptions in New Jersey were visually-impaired voters, who were the only voters allowed to actually vote in-person at polling stations. Virtually all of New Jersey’s 4.2 million votes were mail-in ballots.
So, what happened to new cases of COVID-19 in each of those three states after Election Day? Surely, there must have been outsized spikes of COVID-19 cases in Florida, slightly less in Pennsylvania, and significantly less in New Jersey, right? Actually, the reverse happened.
In Florida, where again the vast majority (88%) of votes had been cast in-person, there was an increase in COVID-19 cases, but it was relatively moderate compared to New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Using the week-ending 10/31/20 as a baseline, Florida saw a 23.8% increase in new cases for the following week – when the election occurred – and then a jump to 30.8% for second week in November, which was last week. In Pennsylvania, however, where over a third of votes were mailed in, they saw a sharper increase.
Again, using the last week of October as a baseline, Pennsylvania’s number of new COVID-19 cases bumped up by 17.7% for the week-ending 11/7/20, but then skyrocketed last week, with new cases up a whopping 51.4% over the base week.
In New Jersey, the rise has been more steady, but significant nonetheless. New cases in the Garden State jumped by 30.1% for the first week of November compared to the baseline, and then last week new cases surged all the way up to 50.1% compared to the base week. And again, New Jersey voted almost exclusively via mail-in balloting.
Daily New COVID-19 Cases by State (data source www.Worldometers.info eff. 11/15/20)
For clarity, there is no doubt that there are various other factors at play when it comes to the data we see regarding new COVID-19 cases. Depending on the state, new cases of coronavirus could have been on the rise earlier in October, resulting in a natural progression of increases in cases. Perhaps folks in various regions of each state behaved differently during the period, which resulted in a rise in infections. Or maybe local or state laws not related to voting had been recently relaxed. Fair enough. But that is, after all, the whole point. COVID-19 is a virus, and the cause-and-effect we see isn’t always easily explained or predicted. We were told, however, that the prospects of in-person voting were so dire, the health dangers so intense, that we needed to dramatically alter the most revered process of our democracy to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Doing anything less could result in Americans dying. Therefore, compared to other states, shouldn’t we have seen a decrease, or at least a lower increase in cases in New Jersey, which took the drastic step of eliminating virtually all in-person voting? With the virus’ incubation period of 2-14 days, how is it possible that Pennsylvania saw such drastic increases in new cases compared to Florida, when such a higher percentage of Pennsylvanians stayed away from in-person polling?
There have been major and obvious concerns with mass mail-in balloting for years. President Trump had been voicing his concerns about the process for weeks leading up to the election, along with many other Republicans. But Democrats have also voiced apprehensions about the idea. In 2004, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) stressed that “Paper ballots are extremely susceptible to fraud.” Just this past August, Hillary Clinton urged, “If you’re going to vote by mail… take a picture of your ballot.” But if there’s nothing wrong with mail-in voting, Mrs. Clinton, why would anyone need to take a picture? For those who didn’t take pictures of their ballots, is it possible that their votes weren’t counted?
The effort to shift from in-person voting to mail-in voting was never about protecting citizens from COVID-19. In April, Wisconsin conducted their primary elections with virtually no mail-in voting and over 400,000 folks voted in-person, and COVID-19 cases actually declined in the following weeks. People can vote safely in person by following the masking and social-distancing guidelines; this fact has been obvious for months. It worked in Wisconsin in the spring, and it apparently worked in Florida two weeks ago. What was the motivation then, of the discouragement, and in some cases prohibition of in-person voting? Was it done so that government officials could appear as being prudent and concerned in the eyes of their constituents? Maybe. Was it done for more nefarious reasons, perhaps to facilitate voter fraud? We don’t know for sure, and we may never know. But it is certainly a fair question to ask, and one to which we should demand answers.