The COVID-19 pandemic has Americans rethinking how we vote. Many states have expanded vote-by-mail and absentee voting so people may cast ballots while remaining socially distant.
For example, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, announced that coronavirus is a valid excuse for voting absentee this November, while Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, ordered that all voters be sent mail-in ballot applications.
Last Monday, the Oklahoma State Supreme Court declared that voters do not need to have their application for an absentee ballot notarized. The ruling removed a key barrier to Oklahomans accessing mail-in ballots for upcoming elections. Requiring notarization is cumbersome during a pandemic, when limited contact with others is needed to prevent the spread of disease.
The ruling brought Oklahoma in line with practices in other states. Mississippi is the only other state to require notarization. Most others require voters to apply for a mail-in ballot and affirm, under penalty of perjury, that they are who they say they are. Oklahoma voters already have to do this whether voting in-person or absentee.
Opponents worried eliminating notarization would increase voter fraud. But, voter fraud is extremely rare. The stiff penalties for committing fraud far outweigh the possible benefits, and there are numerous safeguards already in place. Elections are conducted entirely by mail in “blue” states like Oregon and “red” states like Utah and have proven extraordinarily secure.
State and federal lawmakers disagree about the merits of voting by mail. However, our research suggests that a plurality of Americans support vote-by-mail without restrictions, and that a small minority of Americans oppose vote-by-mail altogether. We also find that while attitudes toward vote-by-mail are typically ideologically contentious, concern about the pandemic may be neutralizing disagreement on this issue.
To study this, we fielded a representative online survey of 1,015 American adults in late April. In addition to asking respondents about their opinions toward vote-by-mail (and several alternatives), we also asked them to report their levels of concern about the health risks posed by COVID-19.
We find that 40% of Americans support offering vote-by-mail in November without any restrictions. An additional 21% believe that vote-by-mail should be extended only to people who cannot be present to vote in person, and 26% believe that anyone should be allowed to vote by mail, but only if they request an absentee ballot. Just 13% oppose voting by mail policies outright.
Importantly, we find strong ideological differences in support for vote-by-mail without restrictions among people who are not concerned about COVID-19 (about 20% of Americans). However, among those highly concerned about COVID-19’s health effects (about 38% of Americans), we find virtually no ideological differences in vote-by-mail support. Strong liberals (48%) and strong conservatives (43%) support vote-by-mail without restrictions.
Our work suggests that Americans may not be as divided on voting by mail as policymakers are — both in Washington, D.C., and in Oklahoma City. If public concern about COVID-19’s health risks continues throughout the fall, and if Oklahomans’ opinions on vote-by-mail resemble those of liberals and conservatives elsewhere, the merits of offering expanded mail balloting in November may be a point of agreement — not disagreement — for liberals and conservatives alike.
Matt Motta is an assistant professor of political science at Oklahoma State University. Joshua Jansa is an assistant professor of political science at Oklahoma State University.
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