If coronavirus is still active during this November’s presidential election, the risk remains of spreading the virus among voters and poll workers. The best solution is to limit in-person options and rapidly expand the number of voters who submit ballots through the mail.
This is the right choice for public health. But a debate around the degree of change needed is reasonable: how many mail-in ballots and how many polling places are needed to both keep people safe and allow fair access? And lurking in the background are darker questions: does one party stand to benefit as vote by mail expands? Is this a partisan game masquerading as a question of public health?
The short answer to both questions is no. On the surface, there might seem to be a partisan angle. Many Democrats have pushed for expanding vote by mail, while President Trump has firmly stated it would hurt Republican candidates. States friendly to voting by mail tend to vote more Democratic, while some Republican-leaning states like Texas have resisted more voting by mail even in the pandemic. And Californians who vote by mail are older and more likely to be white, demographics that also vote more Republican on average.
But these scenarios describe the status quo; they don’t tell us how election results might change if vote by mail became more widely available. When election jurisdictions—including some California counties—have rapidly expanded vote by mail, neither major party has clearly benefited. Likewise, early evidence from experiments with heavy vote by mail in California suggests an increase in turnout among Latinos, Asian Americans, and young people of up to seven percent, though often with a fair amount of statistical uncertainty.
The same analysis suggests overall turnout increased about two to three percent, making it difficult to say that the composition of the electorate changed much in the end. Thus, while the greater convenience of vote by mail does seem to draw in a few more voters, these voters aren’t that different on average from the ones who show up already.
The demographic differences between in-person and by-mail voters are real, but should not be overstated. People from all backgrounds and political persuasions vote in person. All of them will be at risk in an election where coronavirus is still active. Expanding vote by mail is now a pure question of public health and administrative capacity. Neither party should worry that it will put them at a disadvantage.