“That’s when the light went on,” he said. “You could game the absentees.”
Election analysts say fraud is a negligible problem in elections, but what little is detected generally involves absentee ballots delivered by hand or by mail. Six states, including heavily Democratic Oregon and solidly Republican Utah, already allow all or almost all voters to cast ballots by mail, and 29 others allow citizens to cast absentee ballots without offering a reason. None has encountered significant fraud in recent years, beyond a 2019 House election in North Carolina, which was stained by absentee-ballot fraud conducted by supporters of the Republican candidate.
That fraud was quickly detected, as would be true with mailed-in votes, said Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist. “We know it occasionally happens, but there is a good check in place,” he said.
Since the pandemic gained momentum, several states have sought to alter their voting rules to allow residents to cast mail ballots instead of crowding into polling places. Michigan, which allows residents to apply for no-excuse absentee ballots, has gone a step further and authorized sending applications for the ballots to all registered voters. Other states that require an excuse to cast an absentee ballot, including West Virginia and Alabama, have either temporarily waived the requirement or pledged to include exposure to the coronavirus under the illness exceptions on their absentee ballot applications.
Others, like Missouri, have left the decision up to local election officials; Kansas City does not count fear of coronavirus as a valid excuse to vote absentee, while St. Louis does.
Mr. McDonald and others said federal funding is not crucial to states that allow mailed ballots, or to states like Wisconsin where no-excuse absentee ballots have been embraced by large numbers of voters. But in states that are unused to it, gearing up for a flood of mailed-in ballots is both an expensive and a complicated process.
“They don’t have the equipment,” Mr. McDonald said. “They have to print out all these ballots and send them out, manage absentee ballot requests, and once the ballots come back in, they have to count them all.”
The Brennan Center asked a panel of election experts to tally the cost of protecting this year’s elections from the coronavirus. They concluded that it would cost $1.4 billion to ensure that every voter received a mail-in ballot, and hundreds of millions more to staff and process the ballot count and to educate voters.