Joe Biden, Lisa Murkowski, and Why Mail-In Voting Will Work

2010 was a different era. But one Senate race from that year can provide clarity on this year’s presidential race.

Lisa Murkowski during his 2010 campaign. Source: NPR

Before the all-consuming news of Donald Trump’s contracting COVID-19 on Friday, the nature of voting in the 2020 November election was a leading topic for many leading pundits and opinion-makers. Democrats, Republicans, and independents have all debated horserace politics and new polls on a daily basis. They have also discussed exactly how people will vote, with increased concern about the prevalence of mail-in voting over the next few weeks.

Democrats in particular have sounded the alarm about these ballots. Many Trump opponents believe that mail-in ballots could be thrown out over technicalities. They see the chance for a “red mirage,” a phenomenon based on the tendency for Democrats to take COVID-19 seriously and vote by mail while Republicans show up in person. Since in-person votes are often counted first, political scientists envision a plausible scenario in which Trump would use beneficial in-person voting totals to declare victory on Election Night and then invalidate mail-in ballots that would overcome his hollow declaration. Even ostensible supporters of mail-in ballots, such as Barton Gellman and Ed Kilgore, have advocated that more Americans should eschew them and vote in person to ensure that the “red mirage” scenario does not happen.

Mail-in ballots seem like a difficult way to operate an election. There are already considerable barriers to voting for millions of Americans. Voting involves taking time out of one’s busy schedule to take an act that, viewed out of context, will most likely not decide an election. The typical election compounds this fundamental bar with long lines, confusion about polling places, the requirement to register long before Election Day, and rampant misinformation about voting methods and procedures. Even though this process is difficult, millions of Americans have become accustomed to it over the past 200 years and respond accordingly.

Mail-in voting has a brand-new set of hurdles for many people, one that does not have centuries of precedence and familiarity behind it. Most people do not know the myriad laws associated with mail-in ballots. They may have to go through effort requesting their ballot and filling it out. Many states have witness requirements that may be difficult and take time. Then, the voter has to either put the ballot in the mail before an early deadline or brave the pandemic to physically deliver their ballot to a drop-off box. Forcing voters to learn and navigate a mostly new voting system would be a challenge in any year, let alone one when a global, once-a-century pandemic has sapped the mental energy of the vast majority of Americans.

It may seem impossible to muster the resources and civic responsibility necessary to win an election as complex as one conducted by mail. But one historical example clearly proves otherwise: that of Alaska in 2010. In that year, incumbent Republican senator Lisa Murkowski lost a bitter primary to Tea Party candidate Joe Miller. Miller had a wide variety of views and comments that made him abhorrent to a large number of Alaskans. As Christina Bellantoni wrote in Talking Points Memo at the time:

He wants to eliminate the Department of Education, believes the government shouldn’t pay for unemployment insurance and says of climate change on his campaign site that it “may not even exist.” Among the more mainstream GOP positions he’s taken: Miller would cut welfare; eliminate health care for the poor by scrapping Medicaid; and the Anchorage Daily News reported that he has has called for sweeping cuts to Medicare and Social Security with a goal of phasing them out entirely in favor of total privatization.

In the Trump era, these acts seem almost pedestrian. But Miller’s beliefs, and his habit of manhandling journalists, made him enormously controversial in 2010. No matter what, Alaska was, and still is, a ruby red state. There was still a strong chance that Miller would defeat his Democratic opponent, Scott McAdams, in November and bring his radical views to Congress.

Murkowski, however, had one more opportunity to win the seat. She gained the signatures necessary to mount a write-in candidacy. The prospect of winning a write-in campaign at any time was challenging, to say the least. A candidate had to overcome all sorts of barriers. They had to stand as a practical third party in a clear two-party system. Instead of simply checking a box, prospective write-in candidates have to push voters to go through the effort to write a name correctly. Winning a Senate race as a write-in candidate had only been done once before, and that had been in a race involving one of the 20th century’s longest-term senators. Strom Thurmond, a segregationist Democrat from South Carolina, won a write-in campaign in 1954. But he had the benefit of being the South’s most famous politician at a time of flux in the status of the parties in that region.

Murkowski lacked many of these benefits. She was popular and had name recognition, but her stature did not come close to Thurmond’s in 1954. Murkowski also had to deal with a state where polarization had been cemented over the previous two decades. Only one Democratic representative and two Democratic senators had served in the entire history of Alaska as a state. Voters were attuned to voting for one party, the Republican Party, and that party’s candidate. On top of all of these factors, Murkowski had a name that was more difficult to spell than Strom Thurmond’s and an opponent willing to go to court to ensure that misspelled ballots were thrown out. Therefore, it was a minor miracle when Murkowski won her Senate race by nearly 10,000 votes. Miller’s last-minute lawsuit to throw out ballots with misspellings of Murkowski’s name, which failed, did not challenge nearly enough votes for Miller to win.

There are numerous parallels between Murkowski’s experience and the presidential race this year. Like Murkowski, Biden wants millions of voters to take steps beyond simply filling in a circle beside his name. Biden also needs voters to correctly complete the mail-in voting process. Trump will clearly be more zealous about mistakes and procedure than Joe Miller, whose feeble lawsuit against minor misspellings was rendered moot eight days after the election. There will be dozens of Miller-like lawsuits from the Trump camp, an inevitability that can only be avoided if Democrats take the time to vote carefully and correctly. The final parallel to Alaska in 2010 may be the most salient. In that race, voters were motivated as much by their love for Murkowski as their hatred and fear of her most prominent rival. There is no chance that Alaskans in 2010 could have ever hated Joe Miller as much as current Democrats hate Donald Trump.

I’m a writer interested in the intersections of history, ideas, and politics. I publish every week.

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