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In our opinion: Want the country to vote by mail? Here’s how to do it

The pandemic has made voting by mail the safest and most inclusive way to cast a ballot this year.

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A person deposits mail in a box outside United States Post Office in Cranberry Township, Pa., Wednesday, Aug. 19.

Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press

Voting by mail is not inherently more conducive to fraud than another other method, but states that want to expand this way of voting in an effort to protect public health during a pandemic need to begin planning now to make it reliable and safe.

Here are some suggestions:

Despite worries about the Postal Service, postal officials say they can handle the extra volume an election would bring. But smart states, such as Utah and the few others that have conducted primarily mail-in elections for years, develop relationships among state officials, county clerks and local postmasters. These working relationships ensure there are no surprises, no sudden overloads that can’t be handled.

These relationships should help states impose realistic deadlines that allow everyone a reasonable chance to return a ballot. This would prevent a repeat of the disasters that occurred in several states during this year’s primaries. In one Pennsylvania county, absentee ballots were sent so late many people could not reasonably send theirs back with a postmark that met the deadline. In other states, many people said they requested absentee ballots but never received them.

State lawmakers may be in charge of setting these deadlines. With 10 weeks to go before the Nov. 3 General Election, there should be no excuse for not setting reasonable deadlines both for counties to mail out ballots and for voters to turn them in. Drop boxes should be made available on Election Day.

More important than deadlines, however, are safeguards. Mailed ballots should each contain unique barcodes that identify the voter and keep anyone else from submitting another ballot under that name. States should require ballot signatures that can be compared with signatures provided at the time a voter registered. Vote counters should contact any voter whose signatures don’t match.

People should have a way to check online to ensure their ballot was received and counted. In addition, states should audit mailed-in ballots after elections to ensure accuracy.

States making a switch to mail-in voting, or who are anticipating a surge of absentee ballot requests, need to understand they are not pioneers. The handful of vote-by-mail states have plenty of firsthand knowledge as to how to do things right.

Unfortunately, politics has muddied and cast doubt on the very idea of voting by mail. Years ago, The New York Times published a piece that said mailed-in ballots tend to favor Republicans over Democrats. This year, Republicans, including President Trump, seem to believe it favors Democrats. 

The truth is much more benign. Recent studies, including one from Stanford University, have shown that mail-in voting does not favor one party over another. Other studies have found little evidence that it lends itself to more fraud than other types of voting.

Still, new things tend to breed suspicion.

It’s instructive to recall that two decades ago, after the razor-thin 2000 presidential election, many people warned that the move toward electronic voting machines would lead to an increase in fraud. Again, that was not necessarily the case, so long as states took the time to carefully impose safeguards. Any credible voting method is only as safe as the protections put into place to guard it.

The pandemic has made voting by mail the safest and most inclusive way to cast a ballot this year. The goal must be to allow every eligible voter to participate in democracy safely. 

Several states have shown that mailed ballots can be handled securely. But it’s up to each state to begin planning now for that to be a reality in November.