CNN | 9/23/2020 | Listen

Trump's scare tactics on mail-in voting could disenfranchise seniors

Updated 3:13 PM ET, Tue August 4, 2020

Editor's Note: Max Richtman is president and CEO of the non-profit National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. He is former staff director of the US Senate Special Committee on Aging. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN) - President Trump's rationale for postponing the 2020 elections is an unfounded concern over "rampant fraud" if Americans vote by mail. Discrediting mail-in voting is not only dangerous for our democracy, it could lead to the disenfranchisement of seniors whose safest option is casting mail-in ballots.

Many seniors are rightly worried about the risk of voting in person during the Covid-19 pandemic, which is ravaging the nation's elderly communities. Older individuals who volunteer as election judges and poll workers are already declining to serve in November due to health concerns. Cautious seniors have not even ventured out to visit family or to pick up groceries in the past five months. There is no reason for them to gamble with their health by going to the polls. Mail-in voting is safe and secure. Contrary to the President's claims, fraud is extremely rare.

Over President Trump's objections, jurisdictions across the country are sending voters a record number of mail-in applications and ballots. Five states conduct their elections entirely by mail. Twenty-nine others allow voters to cast mail ballots if they wish. The other 16 states provide absentee ballots to voters who cannot vote in person for certain "excusable" reasons.

In the state of Maryland, any voter can request a mail-in ballot. Daniel Gottlieb, a 90-year-old resident at a senior living facility in Silver Spring, says he has already requested a ballot for November's elections out of concern for contracting Covid-19. "I consider going outside -- period -- a health risk," he says, adding, "If I went to a voting booth, I'd have to self-quarantine for two weeks afterward."

Gottlieb is skeptical of President Trump's rhetoric about mail-in voting fraud. "The process is not compromised -- and you have the right to vote by mail," he says, accusing Trump of using the US election process for his own political purposes. "That's the real fraud."

Voters in Oregon have been casting ballots exclusively by mail for 20 years. Randi Blumenson, a 66-year-old policy analyst in Salem, voted by mail for the first time in 2012 after moving to Oregon from Virginia.

"We did not have universal mail voting in Virginia," she explains. "In 2008, I stood in line for two hours in the pouring rain at my polling place. I saw seniors sitting on their walkers in the storm, waiting to vote, because they couldn't stand for two hours. It was a disaster." By contrast, Blumenson says that voting by mail in Oregon has been "easy," and "a pleasure."

Americans have voted by mail in some form since the Civil War. States conducting all-mail elections have experienced no major glitches or fraud. In fact, a recent analysis of three vote-by-mail states found the rate of "improper voting" was a minuscule -- .0025%. Fraud is scarce thanks to numerous authentication measures, including scrupulous signature matching and unique barcodes for each ballot. Claims by Attorney General William Barr that foreign countries could print bogus mail-in ballots have been dismissed as "nonsense" by election experts.

Ralph Allen, a 67-year-old architect in Washington state, has voted by mail since the 1980s with complete confidence in the integrity of the system. (Washington is one of the states that conducts elections entirely by mail). He calls the President's scare tactics about rampant fraud "ridiculous" because of the "checks and cross-checks" that mail-in ballots undergo. "It's clear that mail-in voting works," Allen says. "The opportunity for mischief is minimal at best. I have a lot of faith that we get a fair and accurate count."

None of these reality checks have slowed the President's assault on mail-in voting. His motivation is fairly transparent: President Trump trails Joe Biden in some polls by double digits, and appears to be losing the crucial senior voting bloc (which he won in 2016). He openly fears that voting by mail will hurt his prospects, claiming that it "doesn't work out well for Republicans."

Meanwhile, Stanford University researchers scrutinizing 20 years' worth of data concluded that mail balloting had no significant impact on which party wins elections. But scaring voters out of casting ballots by mail and encouraging states to limit mail-in voting could disenfranchise Americans unable or unwilling to go to the polls in person -- especially the more than 50 million over the age of 65 (the highest risk age group for Covid-19 complications).

There are, however, legitimate concerns about the United States Postal Service's (USPS) ability to handle an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots without additional support from Congress. The pandemic has understandably strained the already underfunded Postal Service. The House-passed HEROES Act relief bill includes $25 billion of the $75 billion USPS says it needs to remain solvent. But the counterpart Senate bill, the HEALS Act, so far contains no additional funding for the Postal Service.

President Trump is openly hostile to any additional money for the USPS. He also has exacerbated the agency's plight by constantly criticizing its operations, calling the Postal Service "a joke" and installing a Republican fundraiser with no relevant experience as Postmaster General. According to the Washington Post, postal workers are "alarmed" at new "cost-cutting" procedures the agency's new leader has implemented, which are producing significant backlogs of mail nationwide.

The Post reports that there is a growing perception among postal employees and union officials that delivery delays "are the result of a political effort to undermine (mail-in voting)." That rings true. The President seems obsessed with erecting as many roadblocks for a Postal Service trying its best to serve the public during a pandemic. Left unchecked, his ongoing war on the USPS could jeopardize a smooth and timely vote-by-mail operation this fall.

A successful mail-in voting process also relies on adequate election financing for cash-strapped states. The CARES Coronavirus Relief Fund included $400 million in election aid to the states. But the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice estimates that the states actually need some $3.6 billion for additional staff and equipment to process mail-in ballots while protecting the health of poll workers.

Seniors and other voters who cannot safely cast ballots in person this fall are dependent on voting by mail. Most states are striving to make sure that happens (vote.org provides state-by-state information on casting ballots by mail). The President should stop his scare tactics and disinformation designed to discourage mail-in voting. Congress should appropriate the funds the Postal Service and states sorely need to ensure a seamless mail-in ballot process. Nothing less than the proper functioning of our democracy and the ability of all Americans to exercise their right to vote -- regardless of age -- hangs in the balance.


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