How Vote By Mail Saved Democracy and Defeated Trump

And it all started at the Washington Monthly.

Donald Trump is contesting an election he lost by leveling baseless charges at an electoral mechanism that he long suspected would be his undoing: mail-in voting. It’s possible that he can upend the will of the people, especially given the craven willingness of GOP officials to aid and abet him. Because that would require thwarting the vote in several states already in Joe Biden’s column, Trump’s subterfuge is a long shot.

As we wait and see, I can’t help feeling a sense of personal satisfaction that mail-in ballots are the source of Trump’s fear and loathing. Let me tell you why.

When I joined the Washington Monthly as an intern in 1984, one of my bosses was a young editor named Phil Keisling. In 1991, Keisling was elected secretary of state of Oregon, where he set up the nation’s first universal statewide vote by mail program.

Despite the reform’s evident success in boosting turnout and Keisling’s vigorous proselytizing, few other states followed suit, largely because there was no political constituency for the idea. Republicans reflexively opposed any change that would broaden voting. Democrats weren’t convinced that this reform would give them a partisan advantage. Instead, they devoted all their energies to voter registration, early voting, and other traditional tactics. Consequently, the national press virtually ignored the subject.

The one exception was the Washington Monthly. Beginning in 2012, at my request, Keisling wrote a series of deeply researched stories making the case for the benefits—especially for mobilizing low-propensity voters—of universal vote by mail, or as we called it, “vote at home.” Those stories got some attention but were met with skepticism by a number of electoral reform experts. So the Washington Monthly commissioned studies by an independent researcher on the turnout effects of vote by mail in states that had implemented it—studies that got coverage in The Washington Post and The New York Times and were widely discussed in political circles. Keisling and I also helped found a nonprofit, the National Vote at Home Institute, to provide full-time research and bipartisan advocacy for the idea. The NVAHI has since become the most trusted source on all things vote by mail.

Slowly, our work began to bend the curve of elite opinion. Vote at home won endorsements from Common Cause, the Center for American Progress, the AFL-CIO, and even the DNC. A campaign in Arizona to encourage mail-in balloting contributed to the razor-thin electoral victories of Katie Hobbs for secretary of state in 2018 and Kirsten Sinema for the U.S. Senate in 2019.  By 2020, Utah (a red state) and Hawaii (a blue state) had joined Oregon, Washington, and Colorado in instituting universal vote by mail, as had 15 counties in California.  Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Michigan had implemented no-excuse absentee balloting measures, a key first step toward universal vote at home, which is when a mail ballot is sent automatically to every registered voter.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic. Suddenly, in a matter of weeks, a consensus developed that vote by mail was the best and perhaps only way to save the 2020 elections, given the health risks of voting in person. That consensus would not have formed so rapidly without the spadework we did. But it also freaked out Donald Trump, who famously tweeted in May that vote by mail would “LEAD TO THE END OF OUR GREAT REPUBLICAN PARTY.”

His fear became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Republican voters, who once used mail-in balloting disproportionately, abandoned the practice. Democratic voters, meanwhile, embraced it.

This led Republicans to engage in various sabotage efforts, which my colleague Eric Cortellessa has been tirelessly uncovering for months. These include banning swing states from processing mail-in ballots prior to election day (in order to engineer the very counting delays Trump has warned are a sign of fraud) and, in Pennsylvania, outright refusals by some GOP elections officials to count mail-in ballots that are postmarked by November 3 but arrive after that date despite a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that they do so.

How this developing constitutional crisis will play out is anyone’s guess. It was certainly beyond my wildest imagination that vote by mail would be at the center of such a crisis when we first started to promote the policy eight years ago. But rest assured, my colleagues and I will be covering events as they unfold as carefully and relentlessly as we can.

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Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. He was an editor at the magazine from 1986 to 1988.