Students in Michael Smith’s election security class at Emporia State are hearing a lot about mail voting — it is the first thing they’re tackling in the brand new course.
The move could not be more timely.
Usually intricate discussions about election security are confined to places like political science classes or behind the scene workings in state and local elections offices.
But thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, mail voting was a hot topic leading up to the primary election already. And rapidly building concerns about delays at the United States Postal Service have turned the conversation on its head.
The postal service changes have been characterized by aggressive cost cutting under the leadership of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who was appointed in May. That includes cutting overtime and halting procedures designed to ensure on-time mail delivery.
Meanwhile, at least one mail processing machine had been removed from sites in Wichita and Kansas City, mirroring similar moves nationally, although a USPS spokesperson insisted it was part of a pre-planned modernization effort. Cities in other states ranging from Montana to Oregon have seen mailboxes removed, as well.
DeJoy walked back the moves earlier this week, saying they would be put on pause until after November.
"There are some long-standing operational initiatives — efforts that predate my arrival at the Postal Service — that have been raised as areas of concern as the nation prepares to hold an election in the midst of a devastating pandemic," he said in a statement. "To avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail, I am suspending these initiatives until after the election is concluded."
But with DeJoy confirming Friday that previously removed equipment will not be returned — like the machines in Kansas City and Wichita — many are wondering how much of an effect the announcement will have on delays in Kansas and around the country.
Smith, the Emporia State professor, says that data shows turnout is boosted an average of 2%, although he acknowledged these are extraordinary times.
And it isn’t necessarily the case that such an impact would benefit one party over another, he added.
"We’ve heard a lot lately that vote by mail benefits Democrats, that Republicans are seeking to suppress it for that reason," Smith said. "If they are in fact seeking to do that, they may be mistaken — the data does not back that up."
But some are worried that the mixed messaging that residents have received could confuse them when it comes time to request a mail ballot, decreasing those who choose to vote via that method.
And there are other, non-USPS points of confusion for voters seeking to cast their ballot by mail, as well, outside of the constant stream of headlines about the postal service.
The Kansas Secretary of State’s Office has said that there has been a slight uptick in calls from concerned citizens about mail voting in light of the post office news.
But even more voters are calling to ask about mailers that have been sent to many residents from a third-party entity, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Voter Information, containing an application for a mail ballot.
Some residents were concerned this could be a scam.. But state officials have since confirmed they are not fraudulent, as confusing to voters as they might be.
Still, caution is urged.
"Our office encourages Kansas voters to be very cautious in providing information to third parties," said Katie Koupal, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office.
There also is the fact that absentee voting demands more of residents than going to the polls in person.
Voters must request an absentee ballot in a timely manner, which in Kansas means that it must be received by county elections officials one week before the election date. For the general election, that means it has to be received by Oct. 27.
Numerous speakers during the Democratic National Convention encouraging voters request and obtain their ballot as soon as possible and return it immediately.
It is expected this messaging will be a cornerstone of the party’s get out the vote push going forward. Ben Meers, executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party, said in an interview earlier this month that officials were planning such a push in October, when most voters will be mailing back their ballots.
And while the state Republican Party has not advocated its members vote by mail, some local GOP committees, including the Shawnee County Republican Party, have shared information about how to use the absentee system.
But the secretary of state’s office is encouraging voters to allow more time given the increased volume of applications. Once completed, ballots can be returned to a voter’s polling place or county elections office, as well.
"With the increase in advance by mail ballot applications for the primary, which will presumably continue into the general election, our message to voters is to be proactive with all election-related activities — registering to vote, requesting an advance by mail ballot if that is how you wish to vote and in returning your ballot," Koupal said.
Other rules can trip up voters, including requirements that they sign the ballot in the proper place.
"Vote-by-mail is not a good way to vote for people who are lackadaisical about following rules or procrastinate, because that is where the process goes wrong, bluntly," said Patrick Miller, professor of political science at the University of Kansas.
Assuming voters follow those rules, Smith said he believed the rhetoric surrounding the post office could actually increase turnout, with groups who may feel as though their votes might be suppressed more motivated than before.
"If voters feel singled out and targeted, they are more likely to vote," he said.
And with advance mail voting a staple of Kansas elections for some time, albeit not at the levels seen during the primary election, many voters may be confident in the system.
This isn’t true everywhere, Smith said, with voters of color not always liable to trust white election officials. But while residents in urban areas are bracing for mail voting complications, voters in rural areas likely believe problems lie elsewhere, not in their backyard.
"A majority of Kansans now live in the six most populated counties," Smith said. "They are more urban and they are more diverse. So some of those issues you’d see in a bigger state, you’ll see there, as well."
And while some candidates may tailor their messaging to account for issues with the USPS, Miller said that the responsibility is heightened for voters, not candidates.
"Voters need to be aware that it is your job as the voter to defend your vote — no one else is going to do that for you," he said. "And no matter how you choose to vote, whether it is mail or early and in-person, you need to follow the rules and act responsibly to protect your ballot. And I think even with all the shenanigans happening with the post office right now, I think if voters can follow the rules responsibly, then vote by mail can be very successful."