Explained: What is in-mail voting and the debate around it ahead of US elections 2020

The Democratic Party has nominated Joe Biden as its presidential candidate to take on Republican Donald Trump in the November election. The decision was taken at the ongoing convention of the party.

The coronavirus pandemic has posed serious problems ahead of the election, and many are pushing for expanded use of postal ballots as against in-person voting to ensure social distancing and stay safe from the disease which has wreaked havoc in the United States.

Trump is opposed to the system claiming it will lead to voter fraud. His party has accused that the practice of postal ballots will lead to rigged election.

The case for in-mail voting:

With the Trump administration openly trying to undermine mail-in voting this fall, some election officials around the country are hoping to bypass the Postal Service by installing lots of ballot drop boxes in libraries, community centres and other public places.

Such boxes have been used with success for several years in states like Oregon, Washington and Colorado that rely largely or entirely on ballots that must be sent in. But their use is being expanded because of the coronavirus outbreak.

State or local authorities in places such as Arizona, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are pressing for more boxes or drop-off sites that would enable ballots to reach election officials without going through the mail.

What is in-mail voting:

The process is simply sending a vote by mail. In the US, when the election authorities receive such a request, they send ballot to the address of the voter who wants to exercise this oon after vetting the application. The voter (or a group of them can then sign the envelope, casts it and send the ballot boxes back to authorities.

Voting by mail is not new in the United States – nearly 1 in 4 voters cast 2016 presidential ballots that way. Routine methods and the decentralised nature of US elections make it very hard to interfere with mailed ballots, experts say.

While mail balloting has its drawbacks, it can help minimise the long lines, faulty voting machines and Covid-19-induced staffing shortages that have plagued some elections this year.

What are the hurdles?

There are 17 states in the US such as Texas, New York and Louisiana that would need to change their policies to guarantee that everyone who wants to vote by mail in November is able to do that.

It will be expensive. The Brennan Centre for Justice estimated the cost of ensuring that vote by mail was available for all voters could be up to $1.4 billion, with postage alone costing up to $600 million.

How secure is the process?

Election experts say it would be nearly impossible for foreign actors to disrupt an election by mailing out fake ballots.

Ballots aren’t counted if they aren’t printed on the proper type of paper and don’t include specific technical markings.

States also require voters to sign the outside of their envelope, which they match to a signature on file.

Some 29 states and the District of Columbia allow voters to track their ballots to ensure they are received, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Fourteen states and DC also allow voters to return their ballots by hand if they don’t trust the mail.

Those envelopes are typically opened by a different group of workers than those who scan the ballots. Outside observers are allowed to monitor the process to ensure voter privacy.

What about incidents of fraud?

As with other forms of voting, documented cases of mail-ballot fraud are extremely rare.

The conservative Heritage Foundation, which has warned of the risks of mail voting, found 14 cases of attempted mail fraud out of roughly 15.5 million ballots cast in Oregon since that state started conducting elections by mail in 1998.

How is President Trump dealing with it?

Trump made clear last week that he was blocking $25 billion in emergency aid to the Postal Service, acknowledging he wanted to curtail election mail operations, as well as a Democratic proposal to provide $3.6 billion in additional election money to the states to help process an expected surge of mail-in ballots.

Trump criticised postal operations and claimed that universal mail-in ballots would be “a disaster”.

Explained: What is in-mail voting and the debate around it ahead of US elections 2020