Mail-in voting remains controversial on campus

OSWEGO, N.Y. — In the fall semester, students may see some of their peers tabling outside for Vote Oswego, encouraging them to vote in the upcoming 2024 election. One of their main strategies: handing out forms to request a mail-in ballot.

Mail-in voting has been convenient for Natalie Shah, a student who has voted by mail in every election since the 2022 midterms. Shah has moved to several residences in the past few years. Without a mail-in ballot, they said, voting would be difficult for them without a fixed address.

“I’ve been luckily able to request mail-in ballots every single time,” Shah said. “And that means I’ve been able to actually vote in each election since I got registered because I was able to vote regardless of where my address was.”

A row of mailboxes in Scales Hall
Mail-in voting replaces the polling booth with the mail box. Photo by: Evan Youngs

Mail-in voting is gaining popularity: 43.6% of voters mailed their ballot in the 2020 election, compared to 21.0% in the 2016 election, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Democracy doesn’t work unless we have the vast, widest amount of people voting as possible,” Shah said. “This has really opened up for people who are disenfranchised.”

While Shah encourages students to vote by mail, calling them “a hundred percent safe,” Kyle Camille, president of SUNY Oswego College Republicans, however, is skeptical of the integrity of mail-in voting.

“There’s a very good chance of fraud,” he said.

Instead, Election Day should be a national holiday, Camille said, so workers can be able to take the time to vote.

While Camille opposes universal mail-in voting, he does, however, support limited absentee voting. While absentee voting and mail-in voting are often used interchangeably, the difference lies in the voter’s reason to not vote in-person on Election Day. 

“Absentee voting” commonly refers to those who register to vote by mail specifically because they are not able to vote at a polling site in-person on Election Day. This can include members of the military, those traveling overseas or senior citizens. Election officials commonly use “mail-in voting” to include those who register to vote by mail but will not necessarily be absent or far from their county. 

As a student in upstate New York whose residence is in Rhode Island, Camille votes with an absentee ballot.

In New York state, while there are two different request forms for absentee voting and early mail-in voting, the two methods are functionally the same.

Republican politicians pushed against universal mail-in voting during the 2020 election, when avoiding COVID-19 virus was cited a permissible reason to vote by mail in New York state. 

Former President Donald Trump has claimed that Democrats had tampered with the mail-in ballot system to rig the election against him, though there is no evidence that a significant number of mail-in votes were fraudulent.

Trump, while having tweeted in favor of absentee voting for military members and senior citizens, notably commented expanding access to mail-in votes would mean “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

For the 15 states political analysis website FiveThirtyEight were able to collect data from, now-president Joe Biden won the absentee vote for all but Texas, while Trump won the Election Day vote for all but Connecticut.

Vote Oswego collects data on the methods students take to vote, whether it be in-person or by mail, but it is not comprehensive. Out of the 4,173 students who the group counted as voting in the 2020 election, for 3,694 of them the method of voting is unknown.

Among the ballots the group were able to count, the number of mail-in ballots in the 2020 election increased by six percentage points from the 2016 election.

Voters in New York state can request a mail-in ballot up to 10 days before Election Day. Vote Oswego is planning to stop supporting students in requesting mail-in ballots 20 days before the election.

In previous elections, some students had requested ballots too close to Election Day, so their requests could not be processed in time, according to Allison Rank, political science professor and campaign manager for Vote Oswego.

“We’re controlling all the variables we can control, and there’s a lot of variables we can’t control,” Rank said.

New York may be heading toward having only mail-in votes in its elections, according to Rank, if mail-in voting eventually ceases to be a partisan issue. The reason for the change would largely be financial.

Not running in-person polling locations saves “an incredible amount of money,” she said.

Eight states—California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and Washington—along with the District of Columbia allow elections to be entirely conducted through mail-in ballots.