Sep 24, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Democrats' mail voting pivot

Illustration of a hand making a stopping motion coming out of a USPS mailbox
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Democrats spent the early months of the coronavirus pandemic urging their base to vote absentee. But as threats of U.S. Postal Service delays, Team Trump litigation and higher ballot rejection rates become clearer, many are pivoting to promote more in-person voting as well.

Why it matters: Democrats are exponentially more likely to vote by mail than Republicans this year — and if enough mail-in ballots are lost, rejected on a technicality or undercounted, it could change the outcome of the presidential election or other key races.

Driving the news: In Colorado, former Gov. John Hickenlooper, who's running against Sen. Cory Gardner, told Axios that he's encouraging voters to physically take their mail-in ballots to a dropbox and to do so "early, really early."

  • Paulette Jordan, a Democratic candidate for Senate in Idaho, told Axios that she's encouraging voters to take their filled out mail ballots in person to the county courthouse.
  • Black PAC has moved from exclusively educating voters on voting by mail to informing about all available options: in-person, absentee, early voting and voting on Election Day.
  • The Collective PAC — the largest Black-led political action committee targeting Black voters and candidates — is pivoting, too. "We’re shifting away from making plans to vote by mail to voting early in person," Quentin James, the group's founder, told Axios.
  • The pivot is reflected by Barack and Michelle Obama, both of whom have been encouraging Democrats not just to vote by mail, but to vote early any way they can, including in person.

Biden campaign officials say they've always encouraged people to vote however they are most comfortable, and that they've never exclusively stressed one method over another.

  • “For us it’s always been about how we can get people to vote early no matter what, and that’s our number one priority,” said Jenn Ridder, national states director for the Biden campaign.
  • "Folks who like to vote in person can still do that early too, by filling out your ballot and physically bringing it to the polling location."  

But there are signs of potential trouble given the volume of absentee voting that's expected this year:

  • A fresh Pennsylvania state Supreme Court ruling could impact tens of thousands of ballots in that swing state.
  • In Florida, voters are twice as likely to have their absentee ballot rejected if they've never voted that way before, University of Florida political science professor Dan Smith told Axios.
  • In North Carolina, "Black voters’ ballots are being rejected at more than four times the rate of white voters," per FiveThirtyEight. Overall, data shows new, younger, Black and Hispanic voters are more likely to have their ballots rejected. 
  • More than 550k mail-in ballots were rejected during the presidential primaries this year, per an NPR analysis.

Meanwhile, masks, gloves, sanitizer and bleach wipes are more widely available than in the initial months of the pandemic.

  • Elections officials have had longer to prepare for crowd management than during the primaries. And Americans without underlying health issues and pre-existing
    conditions have become more accustomed to social distancing and taking measured risks as they navigate public spaces such as grocery stores.

Flashback: The messaging pivot had begun by the start of the Democratic National Convention.

  • Michelle Obama told voters, "We've got to vote early, in person if we can," even if it means wearing masks and "comfortable shoes" and packing "a brown bag dinner and maybe breakfast too."
  • "If you can, vote early, in person or by mail," Barack Obama said in an Instagram post this month.
  • Last week, Joe Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, voted in person one day before Delaware's primary.
  • On the first day of early in-person voting in Virginia, long lines formed quickly with voters waiting two hours or more to cast a ballot.

Go deeper:

New interactive tool shows Biden's mail voting danger

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