The story so far: Last week, the Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives voted to provide the cash-starved United States Postal Service (USPS) with $25 billion ahead of the November 3 presidential election. The legislation also aims to block policy cuts and curbs that critics said would thwart the mail-in voting system. The vote attracted a sharp response from U.S. President Donald Trump who was critical of the infusion plan.
What is the controversy?
There are two aspects to the ongoing controversy. Mr. Trump and his supporters allege that the expansion of postal voting in the November elections will lead to malpractices. Democrats and a section of the Republicans disagree. Parallel to this, the Democrats allege that a set of measures announced (and now suspended) by the 75th Postmaster General of the United States and the Chief Executive Officer of the world’s largest postal organisation, Louis DeJoy, is a deliberate effort to disrupt postal voting at the President’s behest. Allies of Mr. DeJoy argue these measures were pending for long, and he had just fast-tracked them.
How expansive could the mail-in voting be this time?
Several States have relaxed postal voting rules in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, to enable and even encourage people to not visit the polling booth. All States allowed some form of postal, absentee voting earlier too but this time it is historic. According to an analysis by The New York Times , around 80 million votes might arrive by mail. In 2016, the total number of votes cast was 136.8 million. The same analysis found that 21% of voters will receive ballots by mail even if they do not ask for it; 57% will get if they ask for them; and the balance 22% will get if they ask for them citing a reason. The pandemic is a valid reason in many States. Some States have allowed ballots arriving after the polling day also to be counted, which could delay results there. On July 30, Mr. Trump said on Twitter: “With Universal Mail-In Voting …2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA.” He also suggested the polls could be delayed until “people can properly, securely and safely vote”. The Trump campaign has vowed to fight relaxation in mail-in voting at every step, as they view these changes as unconstitutional.
What changes were announced by the USPS and what were the reactions?
Mr. DeJoy took charge in June, and announced changes in operational practices that soon became controversial. These changes related to retail hours of post office operation, scaling down of mail processing facilities, collection boxes and overtime for workers. The changes snarled up mail movement, and the Democrats alleged the disruption could effectively disenfranchise people. At least 20 States have challenged the measures in court. Mr. DeJoy was summoned by the House of Representatives and the Senate for hearings. Following the upheaval, the USPS suspended all changes until after the elections are over. But questions remain regarding measures that were already effected, such as removal of sorting machines and mail boxes.
What verification is done of ballots arriving by mail?
According to an AP fact check on the possibility of malpractices in postal voting, only people with current voter registrations can receive a ballot by mail. “Voters must fill out the ballot, sign the envelope, then mail it or drop it off at a designated location by a certain deadline.” States have various methods of verification. Some States verify the signature on the envelope with that on the file, some do not verify the signature. Some States require a witness signature or a notarised signature of the voter.
What has been a perennial issue with the U.S. voting procedure?
The voting procedure is diverse across the U.S., which has no central authority as the Election Commission of India that lays down the rule for the whole country. A total of 36 states have laws requesting or requiring voters to show some form of identification at the polls, 35 of which are in force in 2020; of them, only 18 ask for a photo-ID (although North Carolina’s is on hold based on a preliminary injunction from a federal judge). In 16 States and in the capital Washington DC, voters are not asked for an ID, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Republicans, and most vocally Mr. Trump, have been making claims of voter fraud. They want stricter identity checks for voting. More than 10 million residents are unauthorised in the U.S., and of its 35.2 million legal immigrants only 20.7 million are naturalised citizens and hence eligible to vote. Democrats on the other hand argue that stricter rules could disenfranchise minority populations and the less educated and further suppress voting. The U.S. has one of the lowest voting rates among Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries — 55.7% in 2016.