The “Heroes Act” introduced Tuesday by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi should erase any doubt that the Democrats hope to leverage voting by mail and ballot harvesting into a November victory. The legislation purports to be a coronavirus “rescue package,” but it’s a $3 trillion wish list that would strip the states of the power to determine how they conduct elections. It would require every state to allow “no excuse” absentee voting, provide postage-paid mail-in ballots, mandate that votes are counted up to 10 days after Election Day, and eliminate voter ID laws. Ironically, even if this bill had a prayer of passage in the Senate, it wouldn’t achieve its goal.
This was highlighted by Tuesday’s special election in California’s 25th congressional district to fill the open seat vacated by Democrat Katie Hill, who resigned last year pursuant to a scandal involving her staff. The election featured all mail-in voting in a district that Hillary Clinton won by seven points in 2016. Yet Republican Mike Garcia’s 12-point lead was so solid by Wednesday evening that his Democratic opponent, Christy Smith, decided to concede: “While it’s critical that we ensure every vote is counted and recorded, we believe that the current tally shows Mike Garcia is the likely victor in the May 12 special election.”
The special elections in California and Wisconsin suggest that easily accessible mail-in ballots are not the panacea that the Democrats believe them to be.
In other words, the Republican candidate won in an election conducted precisely the way Speaker Pelosi proposes to run every congressional election in the country. There were no systemic or physical impediments to participation, no requirement that voters possess photo identification, no access issues whatever. As a victorious Mike Garcia pointed out on Fox & Friends Thursday morning, “Every registered voter had a self-addressed, stamped envelope sent to them with a ballot, so accessibility was very high.” Still, a lot of Democrats wouldn’t bestir themselves to vote. Tuesday evening, the New York Times lamented,
Republicans are sending their ballots back at a significantly higher rate than Democrats.… 40 percent of registered Republicans had mailed in their ballots, according to tracking data, compared with 27 percent of Democrats, who have about 30,000 more registered voters in the district.… 51 percent of voters older than 65 have mailed in ballots, while just 15 percent of voters younger than 35 have done so.
The most significant takeaway from these data is that, in a district where Republicans are substantially outnumbered by Democrats, the latter were clearly not motivated. Republican voters were obviously far more energized. This was also the case in Wisconsin’s 7th congressional district, where Republican Tom Tiffany defeated Democrat Tricia Zunker by more than 14 points in a special election held to replace former Republican Rep. Sean Duffy, who resigned last September for family reasons. Wisconsin has “no excuse” absentee voting, and about 48 percent of the votes cast in Tuesday’s election were mailed in.
The special elections in California and Wisconsin suggest that easily accessible mail-in ballots are not the panacea that the Democrats believe them to be. Low-propensity voters don’t become more engaged simply because they receive an extra piece of snail mail a couple of weeks before the election. The low participation rate of those young voters about which the Times frets is nothing new. Younger voters turn out far less consistently than other age groups. The real question is whether or not voting by mail will increase overall participation. The most widely cited study on this question finds no evidence that it actually delivers:
Would holding elections by mail increase voter turnout? Many electoral reform advocates predict that mail ballot elections will boost participation.… Drawing on data from a large sample of California counties in two general elections, we find that voting by mail does not deliver on the promise of greater participation in general elections. In fact, voters who are assigned to vote by mail turn out at lower rates.
This counterintuitive conclusion is echoed by researcher Elizabeth Bergman, Associate Professor of Political Science at California State University, East Bay. She writes in the Washington Post that, when voting by mail is the only choice, participation drops:
My research found that when you can only vote by mail, voter turnout actually drops by about 13 percent. I examined what happens to turnout if voting by mail is compulsory. I studied more than 90,000 voters who could vote only by mail across four elections from 2006 through 2008 in five of the most populous urban counties in California.… Because mail voters have a longer voting “window,” they receive less stimulus to vote.
Even if the data supported the claim that voting by mail increases participation rates, is it really possible to get it done in time for the COVID-19 election? Past experience suggests that it would be all but impossible. The states that now vote entirely by mail — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah — took years to get their systems up and running. Who believes the entire country can even come close in five months? Nonetheless, Speaker Pelosi says the House will vote on the bill Friday. Presumably, this is another of those bills that must be passed so we can find out what’s in it. Still, what we know is scary enough.
The “Heroes Act” would strip the states of the power to determine how they conduct elections. It would require every state to allow “no excuse” absentee voting, provide postage-paid mail-in ballots, mandate that votes are counted up to 10 days after Election Day, and eliminate voter ID laws. Even worse, it won’t work. Mail-in voting isn’t a magic bullet that will save the Democratic Party. President Trump pronounced this bill, “DOA,” on Thursday. It’s very likely that the Democrats will arrive at November 4 in the same condition.
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