When America began shutting down this spring because of the Covid-19 pandemic, it transformed the already high-stakes 2020 race into a precarious high-wire balancing act.
Election officials across the country, many of whom were already underfunded and under-resourced, began scrambling to find places where they could safely offer in-person voting, and poll workers, who tend to skew older, began to drop out. Disastrous primaries in Wisconsin and Georgia offered alarming signals that America was barrelling towards a chaotic general election.
Amid this mayhem, states where few people typically vote by mail were suddenly forced to scale up and run elections in which most people were expected to vote that way, hoping to avoid long lines and human contact amid the pandemic. As the year wore on, a sharp partisan divide emerged. Donald Trump railed against voting by mail, while Democrats aggressively encouraged supporters to do so.
For Democrats, it was a risk. In many states, vote by mail had not been used before – including key battlegrounds of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan. For voters used to casting their ballots in person, voting by mail offered a new set of rules and procedures to follow and a voter could have their ballot rejected for even a small mistake.
While Democrats waged an aggressive legal battle to loosen mail-in voting restrictions many Republican officials refused to do so. Congress allocated a fraction of the estimated $4bn needed to run elections with significantly scaled-up mail-in voting. Despite severe mail delays this summer,
Republican officials in Texas and Ohio limited opportunities for voters to return their ballots in person. Texas Republicans fought to block people from being able to register to vote online and sought to reject 127,000 ballots cast using drive-thru voting. Republicans in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and North Carolina strongly objected to efforts to give voters more time to return their ballots and election officials to count them. In Alabama, the state’s top election official successfully went all the way to the US supreme court to block counties from offering curbside voting. In Oklahoma, after the state supreme court struck down a law requiring voters to get their ballots notarized, Republicans moved quickly to reinstate a revised version of the measure.
Now, nearly a month after the election, the risk appears to have paid off for Democrats. The nightmare scenarios largely didn’t occur – there weren’t widespread mail delays leading to millions of Americans being disenfranchised, as many feared this summer. Instead, states with little vote-by-mail experience were able to match more experienced states in running a successful election. More than 100 million people voted early, either in person or by mail – a record number.
“I’m fairly convinced at this point that the Democratic strategy and the Democratic advantage in vote by mail was just crucially and critically important to Biden’s win,” said Tom Bonier, CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm that tracks voter data. “There’s absolutely no way we would have hit these record levels of voter turnout, nationally, without this massive adoption of mail voting.”
‘We worked our ass off’: more Democrats voted by mail
The partisan fights around voting in recent years have been shaped by a belief that, generally, more people voting benefits Democrats. But research earlier this year showed that, on the whole, vote by mail does not generally benefit one political party over the other. As Trump continued to attack vote by mail throughout the year, some Republicans worried he was sabotaging his own voters, dissuading them from a method of voting that might be more convenient and easy than going to the polls.
While the switch to mail-in voting alone cannot explain election results, Democrats did in fact do well in places where many people chose to vote by mail, according to data collected by the Guardian and ProPublica. Counties, where people voted by mail at high rates, were more likely to swing Democratic compared with four years ago.