Voting by mail may be the key to getting more women to the proverbial polls. And to getting Trump and the GOP out of power.
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The decision to vote in person or by mail in light of the COVID-19 pandemic weighs heavily on all Americans, not least of all, on women. COVID-19 health concerns have disproportionately impacted women — especially women of color and caregivers. The complications of school closures and at-home-learning have landed largely on women’s shoulders. The infamous “double shift” has gotten worse. Vote-by-mail is a compelling alternative to waiting in long poll lines and risking one’s health. But it’s been dogged by partisan rhetoric, looming court challenges, a post office funding controversy, and potential capacity issues.
We spoke with women in the swing states of Arizona and Pennsylvania about mail-in balloting. Their responses suggest that, while some are apprehensive about vote-by-mail’s viability, its flexibility could propel women’s participation in the election to new heights.
Women’s political engagement has been growing since 2016. Propelled by the election of President Trump, women increased their political activity and voted in higher numbers than men in both 2016 and 2018. In fact, women have voted in higher proportions than men in every presidential election since 1980, and according to research from the nonpartisan think-tank Gender on the Ballot, this year may even see that number increase even further: 31 percent of women say they will be more involved in 2020 than they were in the past. Women’s vested interest, their need for the flexibility that mail-in voting provides, and voting-by-mail’s track record of increasing turnout overall are the key ingredients for a record-smashing women’s vote.
Still, women are worried—and those fears are heightened in states where vote-by-mail is not the norm. To that end, it’s important to note just how much voting procedures vary across the states. Oregon, Washington, and Colorado run elections entirely by mail. Oregonians instituted all-mail voting in 1998, Washington in 2011, and Colorado in 2013. Utah votes primarily by mail, and Hawaii moved to all mail-in this year, which was planned pre-pandemic. In other states, absentee and early voting are common, though not universal. According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, “In 2016, 50 percent of votes [were] cast early, by mail, or via absentee voting” in 16 states. Absentee voting can occur in-person or by mail; so can early voting. In some states, early voters can drop ballots in special drop boxes, which many more states will utilize this year (the boxes were installed to accommodate increased numbers of mail-in ballots due to the pandemic).
Both Arizona and Pennsylvania currently have such boxes, but the states have very different experiences with mail-in voting. Arizona launched vote-by-mail in 1997 and 75 percent of voters cast their ballots early, by absentee, or by mail, in 2016. Arizona has a permanent early voter list (PEVL). Voters on the list automatically receive a ballot each year; then, they mail it back. One Democratic county party official in Arizona told us that the increased controversy around vote-by-mail has led some “to make it political even though they [have] been voting by mail for a decade.” But, despite the rhetoric, she felt sure that vote-by-mail was “secure and reliable.”
Conversely, in Pennsylvania, vote-by-mail was historically restricted. However, in 2019, Governor Wolf signed a law to allow mail-in voting and create a permanent mail-in ballot list. The governor and advocates said mail-in would make voting easier. Unfortunately, the law went into effect in April 2020, coinciding with the heyday of pandemic lockdowns. A large, swift uptick in mail-in requests caused chaos, such as confusion over how to use secrecy envelopes, and calls for further reform. A Republican county party official in Pennsylvania highlighted just how much these procedural struggles, along with partisan hyperbole, have damaged trust.
“I’m really worried about it,” the official told us, “It could just be what you hear. Are some of the ballots being lost, thrown away, or not counted?” A Democratic voter said she’s worried too: “Pennsylvania has not been clear with people about how to vote. I don’t trust that I’m getting a mail-in ballot for November.”
Still, despite their concerns, women in both states talked about the time-saving benefits and flexibility of vote-by-mail. It’s a good solution for pandemic-stressed women. One Arizona Democratic Party official said, “I think women are generally busier. Women are in the workplace and they are more saddled with childcare.” Another local party official from the state agreed, adding, “my concern [is] about people having time to vote—having flexibility is crucial. Women will benefit [from mail-in ballots].” Even one Pennsylvania Republican Party women’s group president concurred: “Let’s say you have three small children and you have to get them all out of the car. I don’t know if I would go [to the polls].” Women need to save time, especially Black women and Latinxs.
Erin Heidt-Forsythe, a political science professor at Pennsylvania State University noted that having time to vote is a critical issue for women of color, particularly during COVID-19. She said that “having a mail-in system does not totally erase [voting] barriers but it does address some of them.” Black women and Latinxs spend more time waiting in voting lines, even when poll sites haven’t been closed due to a pandemic. Now, polling places in majority-minority neighborhoods are most likely to be shuttered. Women of color are also more likely to be front-line workers and to have underlying health conditions that make voting in-person more dangerous. However, Black women, in particular, are hesitant to vote-by-mail because they are understandably mistrustful of the system; data shows that, in North Carolina, for example, Black voters’ ballots are being rejected at a disproportionate rate. The process is far from perfect, but, at a time when women face extreme pressures, access matters.
The 2020 primaries make that point. According to the New York Times, states that made it easier for people to vote by mail during the primaries saw higher turnout than states that made fewer changes. This is notable on its own, but it’s particularly important for women. Looking again at Arizona and Pennsylvania, women were drivers of voter turnout. 61 percent of Arizona 2020 primary voters were women; 88 percent of votes were cast by mail. Meanwhile, of the approximately 2.7 million people who voted in Pennsylvania’s 2020 primaries, OpenDataPA shows that about 2 million voted by mail. While the returns aren’t broken down by gender, 1.4 million mail-in ballots returned in Pennsylvania came from Democrats while the rest, about 500,000, came from Republicans. Since women are more likely than men to be registered Democrats and given their greater participation in the primaries overall, more women likely took advantage of the vote-by-mail option.
And the trend continues. Women’s surging political activism since President Trump’s election is well-documented. COVID-19 is driving a concomitant surge in mail-in voting. In fact, as of October 6, over 4 million Americans had already voted. That’s 50 percent more than voted early or by-mail in 2016 but only a fraction of what’s expected. In the end, women are likely to comprise a majority of the mail-in vote count. Together, widespread vote-by-mail and women’s high interest could deliver the largest-ever-recorded female voter turnout. That vote is likely to determine the fate of the Senate and the presidency. The next “Year of the Woman” is about to make history.
Stephanie Szitanyi is Assistant Dean of Part-Time Faculty Affairs at The New School and is the author of Gender Trouble in the U.S. Military (Palgrave 2020). She holds a PhD in Political Science from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Stephanie is a contributor to several political news sites. Her scholarly work focuses on women in the military, female political representation, and the militarization of American culture.
Heather James is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Borough of Manhattan Community College of the City University of New York (CUNY) and Campus Liaison for the Edward T. Rogowski Internship in Government and Public Affairs. She has a Ph.D. from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Heather is a contributor to several political news sites. Her scholarly work focuses on women, campaigns, and campaign finance.
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