Democrats took a risk to push mail-in voting. It paid off

Sam Levine and Alvin Chang in New York
·9 min read

When America began shutting down this spring because of the Covid-19 pandemic, it transformed the already high-stakes 2020 race into a precarious high-wire balancing act.

Election officials across the country, many of whom were already underfunded and under-resourced, began scrambling to find places where they could safely offer in-person voting, and poll workers, who tend to skew older, began to drop out. Disastrous primaries in Wisconsin and Georgia offered alarming signals that America was barrelling towards a chaotic general election.

Related: Does mail-in voting lead to fraud – and does it help Democrats? The facts

Amid this mayhem, states where few people typically vote by mail were suddenly forced to scale up and run elections in which most people were expected to vote that way, hoping to avoid long lines and human contact amid the pandemic. As the year wore on, a sharp partisan divide emerged. Donald Trump railed against voting by mail, while Democrats aggressively encouraged supporters to do so.

For Democrats, it was a risk. In many states, vote by mail had not been used before – including key battlegrounds of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan. For voters used to casting their ballots in person, voting by mail offered a new set of rules and procedures to follow and a voter could have their ballot rejected for even a small mistake.

While Democrats waged an aggressive legal battle to loosen mail-in voting restrictions many Republican officials refused to do so. Congress allocated a fraction of the estimated $4bn needed to run elections with significantly scaled-up mail-in voting. Despite severe mail delays this summer, Republican officials in Texas and Ohio limited opportunities for voters to return their ballots in person. Texas Republicans fought to block people from being able to register to vote online and sought to reject 127,000 ballots cast using drive-thru voting. Republicans in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and North Carolina strongly objected to efforts to give voters more time to return their ballots and election officials to count them. In Alabama, the state’s top election official successfully went all the way to the US supreme court to block counties from offering curbside voting. In Oklahoma, after the state supreme court struck down a law requiring voters to get their ballots notarized, Republicans moved quickly to reinstate a revised version of the measure.

Now, nearly a month after the election, the risk appears to have paid off for Democrats. The nightmare scenarios largely didn’t occur – there weren’t widespread mail delays leading to millions of Americans being disenfranchised, as many feared this summer. Instead, states with little vote-by-mail experience were able to match more experienced states in running a successful election. More than 100 million people voted early, either in person or by mail – a record number.

“I’m fairly convinced at this point that the Democratic strategy and the Democratic advantage in vote by mail was just crucially and critically important to Biden’s win,” said Tom Bonier, CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm that tracks voter data. “There’s absolutely no way we would have hit these record levels of voter turnout, nationally, without this massive adoption of mail voting.”

‘We worked our ass off’: more Democrats voted by mail

The partisan fights around voting in recent years have been shaped by a belief that, generally, more people voting benefits Democrats. But research earlier this year showed that, on the whole, vote by mail does not generally benefit one political party over the other. As Trump continued to attack vote by mail throughout the year, some Republicans worried he was sabotaging his own voters, dissuading them from a method of voting that might be more convenient and easy than going to the polls.

While the switch to mail-in voting alone cannot explain election results, Democrats did in fact do well in places where many people chose to vote by mail, according to data collected by the Guardian and ProPublica. Counties where people voted by mail at high rates were more likely to swing Democratic compared with four years ago.

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As far as raw votes go, many of them came from large suburban counties which swung heavily toward Democrats compared with 2016.

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Some of the counties that had high ballot return rates were ones that Trump carried in 2016 and 2020, but where Biden was able to cut into his margins. In Pike county in north-east Pennsylvania, for example, voters returned at least 93% of the mail-in ballots they requested. Trump carried the county in 2016 by about 26 percentage points. In 2020, Trump carried the county by just 19 points.

Jay Tucker, the chair of the Pike county Democratic committee, said there was “no question” mail-in balloting helped improve Democrats’ performance this year. He said he and other organizers were able to closely track who had requested a ballot and regularly followed up with those who hadn’t returned a ballot.

“We worked our ass off on that,” Tucker said. “One of the biggest mistakes that Trump made in this election was not backing mail-in voting. Because I think a lot more people came out.”

In Michigan, one of the places that swung hardest towards Democrats was Kent county, home to Grand Rapids. Trump won the county by four points in 2016, but Biden carried it by six points this year. Eighty per cent of the people who requested mail-in ballots returned them, something that contributed to Democrats doing well there, said Gary Stark, the chairman of the county Democratic party.

“I think that the absentee voting was a factor in the higher turnout. I think a number of new voters did use absentee ballots or mail-in ballots this time. No way to prove that, but that would be my gut assumption,” he said.

‘Don’t trust the mailbox’: varying views on mail-in ballots

America saw the highest turnout in a presidential election since the turn of the 20th century. Nearly 160 million people – about 67% of those eligible – cast a ballot this year. And Michael McDonald, a professor at the University of Florida who closely tracks voter turnout, said there were signs that states that expanded vote by mail contributed more to the higher turnout than those that did not, though he cautioned he was still analyzing voter data.

But the repeated Republican attacks on the process appears to have shaken some voters’ faith in the process.

Deadlines for returning absentee ballots flipped back and forth as lawsuits made their way through the courts. There were hundreds of election-related cases brought in state and federal courts this year. The US supreme court declined to lift restrictions on mail-in voting in the handful of them that reached it. It took a federal lawsuit to get the United States Postal Service to be transparent and make detailed commitments about how it would guarantee the timely delivery of ballots.

“My mom was like, no, don’t put anything in the mail. Don’t trust the mailbox. Walk it inside and drop it in,” said Sonni King, who requested a mail-in ballot and returned it in person at a satellite voting location in Philadelphia days ahead of the election.

“I’ve been hearing a lot about the whole mail issues and the breaching and all of that so I felt like this was a safer route,” said Brittany Davis, who voted in person on election day in Philadelphia.

“You just hear so much in the news, in the media, I don’t know how much is true and how much is false, just [about] the mail-in ballots being messed with, people not doing it the right way. So I just know if I was able to come in, even if I had to wait, just to make sure my vote was 100% counted, I was gonna do it,” said Shofolahan Da-silva, who also voted in person in Philadelphia.

There’s also the fact that some communities had a more difficult time voting by mail. As the election neared, Black voters in North Carolina overwhelmingly had their ballots flagged for potential rejection.

Native Americans also faced severe hurdles to voting by mail – postal service on reservations can be unreliable and the nearest post office might be hours away.

‘Habit-forming’: expanded access could be here to stay

The success of mail-in voting this year could mean that more people will vote by mail in the future, Bonier said. That could mean more election infrastructure that supports the sending and counting of these ballots – a process that caused some of the biggest legal fights of the election.

“Historically, generally when people vote by mail once, they do it again. It is habit-forming,” he said. “What we’ll see in terms of the trend line is this election represented a massive spike in interest in mail voting, and some of that will recede, but we’ll settle at a point where far more people in this country will vote by mail in future elections than did prior to 2020.”

In Georgia, for example, people who voted by mail in the 2018 midterm election were far more likely to vote by mail again in 2020, according to a Guardian analysis of data from the Georgia secretary of state. Of those who voted in both elections, about 78% of people who cast mail ballots in 2018 did so again in 2020. Just 34% of in-person voters in 2018 voted by mail in 2020.

Still, if states will continue to embrace the dramatic expansion of mail-in voting after a record turnout election. Republicans in Georgia, as well as Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina senator, have already suggested revisiting the rules around mail-in voting. Such an approach would fit in with a well-documented Republican strategy of trying to make it harder to vote to preserve the party’s power.

“I think we could see some rolling back. It would be hard to justify that given how high turnout was, and the goal should be higher participation,” Bonier said. “But just given the polarization we’ve seen specifically on this issue of mail voting, it’s unreasonable to assume there won’t be at least some efforts to restrict mail voting in future elections.”