Discussing Election Day and Vote by Mail with Michael Traugott

Michael Traugott, research professor at the Center for Political Studies, was featured on the Michigan Minds podcast. In the recording and transcript below, Professor Traugott discusses the timing of the presidential election and whether there are fraudulent concerns with mail-in voting after President Trump tweeted about both topics on Thursday, July 30, 2020

A transcript of Michael Traugott’s remarks follows.

There’s been quite a bit of research about voting by mail. I actually participated in a research project in Oregon in 1995 the first all-mail election and there is no indication that mail-in voting produces any kind of fraud. For that matter, we have almost no fraud in American elections.

Having a vote-by-mail election is a complicated enterprise. Any election is an audit process in which the security of the ballots has to be maintained. Vote-by-mail elections actually cost more than a machine-based election because it requires more staff, the votes come in over a longer period of time, they have to be secured, and then counted. So it’s just as safe and secure, with proper preparation and with sufficient funding, as any other machine election. 

One thing that might be going on is that the President is trying to run out the clock, in the sense that in order to have a secure vote-by-mail election, we probably have to have the funding in place and the local election administrators have to be organized by September. So there’s really only four or five weeks left in order to prepare for our mail election or to have a large number of absentee ballots printed and available.

It’s actually a kind of a fable or a myth that we have national elections in the United States. We really have a series of state and local elections held on the same day. But all of the rules about how you register, how you can get an absentee ballot, how many precincts there are, all of this is regulated by local officials. So while each local official is responsible for the election in their own jurisdiction. It takes a lot of coordination to get the votes counted, for example, at the state level.

Congress passed a law in 1845 as a way of regularizing the Electoral College procedures and they said that federal elections will be held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November in even numbered years, and that has set the calendar for all of our elections. They have never been altered or postponed. Sometimes under unusual circumstances a local election has been postponed, for example a storm or hurricane or something like that. But there is no way that the president of the United States can change the date of an election. It requires an act of Congress.

I think the tweets are strategic. Donald Trump uses these tweets to distract journalists, for example, from covering other important elements of the news of the day. They also have purpose in appealing to his particular base but they don’t serve any useful function for the general public. And in fact, I would be concerned that tweets about the quality of voting in the United States or the need to postpone election day would increase distrust in the public about how our government functions. That’s clearly a bad thing.

I think that the Trump administration is trying to question the validity of the election in November, the accuracy of the vote count and other related factors. It’s all of a kind of debilitating message to American democracy. 

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