WASHINGTON, D.C. — With November's general election just five months away, primaries in eight states, including Idaho, and the District of Columbia on Tuesday relied largely on mail-in ballots and offered a preview of a high-stakes fight over how Americans will vote amid COVID-19.
Although experts say there is no clear evidence mail-in voting benefits either party, President Donald Trump has railed against it, while Democrats are pushing for all voters to have access to absentee ballots. Arguments over how each state will go to the polls in November have already led to a flurry of lawsuits and raise the specter of a pivotal election with disputed results.
"People should not have to put their lives at stake to have a say in who runs their government," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement, "and Washington state is such a great example for how voting by mail can empower people to make their voices heard while protecting their health in this uncertain time."
While Washington and four other states already conduct voting entirely by mail, elections officials in the rest of the country have scrambled to adapt to the pandemic, with fewer in-person polling places and sharp increases in mail-in voting.
A federal court extended the deadline to request absentee ballots in Idaho after technical problems kept voters from filing their requests on time, illustrating the challenges states face in adopting a vote-by-mail system quickly.
"I would remind people that in Washington state it was done over a longer period of time," said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican from Eastern Washington. "I do have concerns about election integrity if we were to adopt mail-in voting across the country during the middle of a pandemic."
Trump has alleged that mail-in voting will lead to widespread fraud, including in statements on Twitter that led the social media platform to label his tweets as inaccurate for the first time.
Priscilla Southwell, a University of Oregon political scientist who has studied mail-in voting since Oregon held the nation's first all-mail election in 1995, said that while fraud does happen, it is exceptionally rare. Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican, found 74 cases of potential voter fraud in the 2016 general election, or 0.002% of the 3.36 million ballots cast.
The president's hard line against mail-in voting -- "We don't want anyone to do mail-in ballots," he said May 21 -- has put his fellow Republicans in the difficult position of encouraging GOP voters to request and cast absentee ballots without contradicting their party's leader.
"I think there's an appropriate role for absentee," said Idaho Rep. Russ Fulcher, also a Republican. "What if you're military personnel? What about my 91-year-old mother?"
But Fulcher drew a distinction between absentee ballots for those who need them -- he said he himself has voted absentee -- and a universal vote-by-mail system. He echoed Trump's concerns about the potential for fraud, citing examples he has seen of ballots sent to addresses that are vacant or simply don't exist.
Asked to respond to Fulcher's claims, Southwell said she would welcome proof of any widespread misconduct, but she has yet to see it.
"As a social scientist," she said, "that is the only kind of evidence that I would consider to be credible in terms of supporting these allegations about voter fraud, but until I see it, I think it's a little dubious."
Yet Southwell said there are legitimate concerns with mail-in voting, including the fact that there is no guarantee that voters can fill out their ballots privately or without coercion. A practice called "ballot harvesting," where someone collects absentee ballots from multiple people, led to the results of a 2018 race in North Carolina being overturned and a GOP operative's indictment.
Ahead of the November election, the partisan rift on mail-in voting is clear. Washington Democrats, including Murray and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, cosponsored bills even before the pandemic that would require states to allow mail-in voting in federal elections. Meanwhile, Trump has claimed that mail-in voting will "lead to the end of our great Republican party."
The divide over the practice in mail-in voting could be seen in the response of Republican and Democratic officials in Kootenai County to primary elections that were finalized Tuesday after a-two-week delay spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Brent Regan, chairman of the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee, speaking for himself and not on behalf of the committee, said voting by mail worked well, though he opposed using it again.
"Given how bad it could have been, I think it went remarkably well," Regan said, "but I don't think anyone wants to repeat it. It was arduous."
Laura Tenneson, interim chair of the Kootenai County Democratic Central Committee, said she saw the mail-in experiment as a success.
"We're very happy with the results that we've seen," Tenneson said. "We haven't seen any evidence of fraudulent voting in Kootenai County."
The Idaho secretary of state's office reported unofficial turnout of 38.5% as of Wednesday evening, up from 32% in the 2018 primary.
But there is no clear evidence that mail-in voting benefits either party. A 2020 study by four Stanford University researchers found that although universal vote-by-mail increases voter turnout, it has no impact on partisan turnout or vote share.
In fact, Southwell said, many benefits of mail-in voting seem to favor Republicans. She pointed out that those who most benefit from not having to travel to a polling place are the elderly and people in rural areas, both groups that tend to vote Republican. Younger people, who move more frequently, tend to vote Democratic but vote less by mail.
"It doesn't make any sense," she said. "This is kind of like shooting yourself in the foot."