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The fight over vote-by-mail could well define a pandemic election.

By Daniel Malloy

A Milwaukee voter in a face mask, standing in a line stretching well beyond the camera’s eye, had a message for the country this week: “This is ridiculous.”

We don’t yet know the results of Tuesday’s election in Wisconsin (tallies will be released Monday, allowing time for the crush of absentee ballots), but we know it was a fiasco. Even with the National Guard called in to help, so few poll workers agreed to show up that there were only five open in-person polling places in Milwaukee — where usually there are 180.

Why? A partisan knife fight over whether to delay or go to all vote-by-mail. The state Supreme Court (in which the majority of justices lean conservative) had the final word in favor of the status quo, the night before the vote. The headline contest was Joe Biden vs. Bernie Sanders — Sanders dropped out Wednesday — but a state Supreme Court seat was on the line, too.

Things may well look better by November. Certainly President Donald Trump hopes so. But there almost certainly won’t be a vaccine — which is what it’ll take for everyone to feel better about gathering in crowds safely. One solution? Send every voter a ballot in the mail and have them send it back in by election day, signed and witnessed.

Trump says this will mean widespread fraud. “Mail ballots are very dangerous for this country because of cheaters,” said the president who recently voted absentee in Florida. He clarified in a tweet later that it’s OK to vote by mail if you’re in certain demographic groups more likely to support him.

Remember that Trump claims millions of fraudulent votes were cast against him in 2016, but an election fraud commission he created had to disband having unearthed no such evidence.

There are some isolated instances of mail voting fraud, the most famous of which involved a North Carolina congressional race in 2018 that had to be run again because of an illegal ballot harvesting scheme by a GOP operative. An exhaustive review found 491 documented cases involving mail ballot fraud from 2000 to 2012 — when there were 146 million registered voters nationwide. It happens, and there are more mail than in-person fraud cases, but the rate of both is tiny.

The real concern is that Trump and the Republicans believe this will advantage Democrats. But there’s little evidence there, either. Most states that have aggressively expanded vote-by-mail are blue states, but academic studies showed Colorado Republicans benefitted slightly from the shift in 2014 while Utah Democrats saw a small bump in 2016. Overall, turnout increased. “That was a more noticeable effect among low-propensity voters,” the studies’ author, Amelia Showalter, told the New York Times.

Turnout was expected to be up this year before the pandemic and given the off-the-charts fervency of Trump’s backers, he might be calculating that lower turnout is better for him. But his fans skew older, and those people are hit harder by the virus. In these unprecedented times, we have no real clue how this will play out.

(U.S. deaths from COVID-19 — in red — compared to American losses in modern wars.)

But we do know that voting access is going to be an all-out war for the next seven months, with life-or-death stakes added to the usual fierceness. Democrats are eager to mail ballots to every registered voter, with a lot of agitation on the left to make it a precondition to any more economic rescue bills in Congress. That’ll probably get whittled down to more funding for vote-by-mail schemes, but a national mandate seems unlikely given Trump’s rhetoric. (And oh by the way, the U.S. Postal Service is seeking a pandemic related bailout too.)

Instead we’ll see this play out state by state, where innovators will figure out a way to conduct drive-through voting, voting by appointment and perhaps an expansion of mail-ins, but it all will come with partisan brawls in states with divided government. Watch Pennsylvania, a key swing state that restricts who can apply for an absentee ballot.

Hopefully the curve will have plunged decisively by the fall, we don’t see the oft-predicted resurgence, and millions of Americans aren’t terrified of waiting in line and touching a screen or picking up a communal pen to mark their choice for president.

If that doesn’t happen, there’s a good chance that come November, Wisconsin-style ridiculousness will decide the presidency.

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