Vote by Mail Isn’t Fair for Everyone

A diamond-shaped yellow construction sign that features a cracked U.S. mail box as a warning

I am obsessed with lowering the hurdles an eligible voter must clear in order to cast a mail-in ballot and have it counted.

On average, between 1-2% of mail-in ballots are rejected every election because they fail to meet hyper-technical state laws that govern counting the ballots of lawful, registered voters. Yet, the burdens of these laws do not fall equally on all voting populations. Instead, over and over again, we see evidence of how these seemingly neutral rules serve to disadvantage young voters and voters of color.

Two recent studies illustrate the scope and depth of this problem.

study of rejected mail-in ballots in the 2018 Florida election found that the rejection rate for mail-in ballots for those ages 18 to 21 was 5.4% compared to 0.6% for those over 65. Meanwhile, mail-in ballots cast by Black, Hispanic and other racial and ethnic minorities were more than twice as likely to be rejected than mail-in ballots cast by white absentee voters. In total, 31,969 mail-in ballots cast by voters in the 2018 Florida election did not count. The U.S. Senate race was decided by 10,033 votes and the gubernatorial race was decided by 32,463 votes.

Similarly, a study of rejected mail-in ballots from Georgia’s closely contested 2018 election found that “newly registered, young, female, and minority voters have rejection rates that are higher compared to their counterparts, varying from 4 to 7 percentage points.”

If you find these results shocking, then you have read them correctly. They are shocking!

As members of the voting rights community, we must pay close attention to all of the details of the rules that will shape voting in November — both big and small. It is not enough to say we need vote by mail. We need to advocate specifically for vote by mail rules that enfranchise all voters. This is why I created the Four Pillars to safeguarding voting rights with vote by mail.

  1. Postage must be free or prepaid by the government;
  2. Ballots mailed on or before Election Day must count;
  3. Signature matching laws need to be reformed to protect voters; and
  4. Community organizations should be permitted to help collect and deliver voted, sealed ballots.

Since then, numerous lawmakers and voting rights and civil rights organizations have endorsed these Four Pillars.

Stacey Abrams called my Four Pillars the “gold standard.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) included the Four Pillars in voting rights legislation they each recently introduced: the HEROES Act, VoteSafe Act and the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act, respectively.

For my part, I am actively litigating to ensure that these four safeguards are in place for November. My legal team is currently litigating 16 Four Pillars cases in 13 states, with more coming soon.

Democrats are already seeing the positive impact of fighting for these protections: in the recent Wisconsin primary, as a direct result of my team’s efforts in court, the state’s Election Day receipt of mail-in ballot deadline was replaced by a postmarked by Election Day deadline. The result: over 142,000 absentee ballots that were postmarked by Election Day were only counted because the court granted an extended deadline for ballots to be received by county clerks. 

Just this week, there was a sweeping victory in Montana, where the court struck down the state’s Election Day receipt deadline in favor of a postmarked by Election Day deadline. The court also struck down the state’s ban on ballot collection.

I am also pleased that several other voting rights organizations haven recently begun adopting these pillars into their own litigation strategies. But we all must do more — and quickly.

Without these safeguards, vote by mail will disproportionately disenfranchise young voters and minority voters to the extent that will determine the outcome of the election in some states.

I wish I could say that the hard work is done in fighting voter suppression for 2020. However, in many ways, the fight has just begun. State legislatures are considering new voting laws that will suppress the vote. And, as we saw, the Republican National Committee and Trump doubled their legal budget to $20 million just to fight voting rights lawsuits.

I expect to file additional Four Pillars cases in the coming weeks and months, all aimed at protecting the right of voters to participate in elections and have their votes counted.

Democracy is literally on the Docket!