Voting by Mail: Ending Long Lines, Hanging Chads, & Paperless Elections

Monday, May 22, 2006


Voting by Mail: Ending Long Lines, Hanging Chads, & Paperless Elections

In a Nation article right after the 2004 election, scholar James Galbraith denounced the long lines in Ohio that prevented so many people from voting. "It is an injustice, an outrage and a scandal--a crime, really--that American citizens should have to wait for hours in the November rain in order to exercise the simple right to vote."

Those rainy Ohio lines in 2004 joined the hanging chads of 2000 as symbols of dysfunction in our voting process. The results of both have been explosive political battles across the country over which voting machines and procedures will protect people's right to vote, yet work efficiently as tens of millions of people converge on understaffed polling stations on election day.

But there is an alternative: voting by mail � which has delivered higher voter turnout with less expense than traditional polling booths in states and local jurisdictions that have used it in recent years.

The Oregon Experience

After a series of experiments in using vote by mail for some special elections and primary elections, Oregon voted overwhelmingly in a ballot referendum in 1998 that all future primary and general elections would be held by mail. With multiple elections since then, the new system has been extremely popular. A 2003 poll conducted by the University of Oregon found that 81 percent of Oregonians prefer vote-by-mail to polling place elections

Based on the state's experience, Oregon's Secretary of State Bill Bradbury has become a national cheerleader for voting by mail, arguing in a 2005 Washington Post op-ed that:

Vote-by-mail is voter-friendly, and high turnout in every vote-by-mail election shows that voters like the convenience...The answer to the nation's voting anxiety is not a national standard that imposes new rules on an outdated system of polling places. The answer is a low-tech, low-cost, reliable and convenient system that makes it easier to vote and easier to count votes. The answer is vote-by-mail.

How the system works: Registered voters are mailed their ballot 14 to 18 days before an election. If a voter doesn't receive a ballot or any other problem arises, they have time to call a county election office and request a replacement ballot or pick one up in person. Voters may mail in their ballots or drop them off at designated drop sites. For security purposes, no ballot is forwarded from the address to which it is mailed and the return mailing envelope for each ballot has a unique identification number than must match the name and the digitally-recorded signature of the voter when it is returned, preventing any multiple voting. Once the recorded signature is matched with the identification envelope, the interior ballot envelope is separated to be counted, assuring the privacy and confidentiality of each ballot. There are also special machines and other options available for the disabled who might find filling out the paper ballot a burden.

The system costs 30% less than an election staffed with thousands of individual polling places, while far more registered voters actually hand in ballots than in almost all other states. By election day in November 2004, 85% of Oregon's registered voters mailed in ballots, the highest percentage turnout in the nation.

More Resources

Vote by Mail Campaigns around the Country

Between a desire to increase turnout in their states, lower the costs of running elections, and deal with bad choices over voting technology, a number of other states are following Oregon's lead:

California: In 2001, the state enacted permanent "no-excuse" absentee voting, meaning any voter can sign up to vote by mail for any reason for all future elections. Between 2002 and 2005, mail voting increased statewide by more than a million votes; absentee ballots accounted for 27 percent of votes cast in 2002, 33 percent in 2004, and 40 percent in 2005�s special election. County supervisors in Alameda and other California counties pushed earlier this year for all-mail elections to deal with voting machine problems, even as the state House Elections Committee approved a bill, sponsored by Rep. Tom Umberg, proposing to have California conduct a vote by mail primary in the 2008 election.

Washington State: Permanent absentee balloting was first introduced in Washington state for disabled and elderly voters in the mid-1980s. "No excuse" absentee ballots were added as an option for all voters in the state in the early 1990s. �Many counties started having 75 to 85 percent of their voters choosing it,� recalls Sam Reed, Washington�s Republican secretary of state, in an interview with The American Prospect. �So last year I requested a bill to allow counties to exercise an option to go all vote by mail.� 34 out of 39 counties have opted for the system, and King County�which includes Seattle and a third of the state�s registered voters, looks ready to do so by next year. Most likely, by 2008, Washington will join Oregon as the second state in the country to conduct all statewide elections by mail.

Arizona: Election officials in Arizona�s two biggest counties estimate that 60 percent of voters in the 2006 federal midterm elections will be cast by mail. Phoenix and Tucson will also be holding all-vote-by-mail local elections by next year. Additionally, a bipartisan coalition is promoting a statewide initiative on the fall ballot to create a universal vote by mail system for all future elections.

Colorado: Beginning in 2004, Colorado counties gained the option to run nonpartisan elections by mail. This year, as in California, federal requirements for voting machine standards and accessibility are putting a crushing bind on county election officials and provoking requests -- initiated by Denver County in February -- for waivers to run vote-by-mail elections.

Many other states have "no excuses" absentee ballot rules and there are proposals to move forward on mail in voting in a number of states. A new Vote by Mail Project has information on the status of voting by mail in each state and is supporting efforts to expand it across the country�with Oregon's Secretary of State on its board of advisors.

Vote by Mail in the States--courtesy of The American Prospect

More Resources

The Advantages of Vote by Mail

While some critics see vote by mail as less secure or more open to fraud than traditional voting, most advocates instead see a well-designed vote by mail system as the fairest and safest voting system available. They stress a number of its key advantages:

Replacing Faulty Voting Machines: States have been torn apart debating the dangers of various voting machines. According to the nonprofit Open Voting Consortium, approximately 30 percent of the votes in the 2004 general election were cast on machines that could not be audited for problems during a recount. Maryland recently made the decision to dump its $90 million investment in Diebold machines due to their lack of a paper-auditing trail. With twenty-five states now have requirements for voter-verified paper audit trails, vote by mail systems largely solve the problem by providing secure paper-based voting.

Dealing with Fraud: While some critics try to paint vote by mail as easy to tamper with, the track record of expanded mail balloting in Oregon, California, Colorado, and other states is one virtually free of fraud or major glitches. In fact, the Oregon system is arguably far more secure from fraud, since rather than having voters check in through largely decentralized polling places, election officials counting mail in ballots have access to a full computerized registry of digitized signatures by registered voters that they can cross-check against voters� signatures on ballot envelopes

No Evidence of Coercion: Another concern raised is the idea that voters will be coerced or bribed in their homes to vote a certain way. Yet again, Oregon, California and other states have not reported any vote-buying incidents during the years that vote-by-mail use has expanded there, and sustaining such fraud on a large scale without detection would be prohibitively difficult.

Time to Research Issues: With little evidence of coercion and bribery, the real result is that voters are more able to confidently seek answers on questions from trusted friends and other sources, then go home to the privacy of their home. They can fill out their ballots carefully, since they will have time outside the long lines on polling day to carefully research and think about choices on what are, in some states, exceedingly long ballots filled with multiple elections and ballot propositions.

Time to Fix Problems: Some critics of vote by mail want to put their faith in electronic touch screens to give voters feedback on problems, but vote by mail gives families the time to check and recheck their own ballots or call local election officials if they have problems. Crushed lines at polling places, shortages of ballots, and other logistical problems on election day are usually far more likely to deny a person their vote than a mistake on a mail-in ballot.

Tracking Voting: One other concern is that voting by mail prevents voters from knowing if their vote has been received by election officials. But new technology is being used in some vote by mail areas to allow voters to check on whether their ballot has been processed using UPS-like codes on the envelope, Voters can check online or make a phone call to make sure their ballot has been received and processed.

More Resources

Election Reform Synergy: Public Financing, Election-Day Registration, and Vote by Mail

Some express concern that vote by mail extends the voting period over a few weeks. There is a possibility that important developments in the last days of the election could be missed by people who already voted, but a longer campaign also prevents engineered "hit pieces" or surprise incumbent actions from artificially tilting an election just before voting day.

Observers do note that vote by mail can mean a longer campaign, which can potentially be more expensive. This is one reason public financing of elections is a good complement to vote by mail to assure that each side has the resources to get their message out. And mail in voting solves a problem that publicly financed "clean elections" systems face, which is how to deal with privately funded opponents who spend outsize resources just before election day. Some public financing systems, such as in Maine, give candidates matching funds when they are outspent by private money, but it's impossible to qualify for those additional funds in time to matter when the opponent's spending comes in an election-eve "hit piece." But by spreading voting over a few weeks, it deters such last minute spending which would come after many have already voted.

This highlights another advantage of vote by mail; without having to spend so much money on covering a whole jurisdiction for turnout on election day, campaigns can spend their resources on systematic outreach to voters over a longer period of time. As James Galbraith argues, with vote by mail, "the importance of an effective political organization to register voters and insure their participation would rise. Meanwhile, the role of advertising would decline."

It is worth stressing that there are additional reforms, such as allowing citizens to register to vote up until election-day, as implemented in Minnesota, which also increases voter participation as well. In fact, later registration combined with voting by mail takes advantage of the time after ballots are mailed for any citizen to discover any problems in their registration and reregister if needed.

This is what makes voting by mail so attractive�not only does it work well in Oregon, it is also a natural complement to a number of other voting reforms. Instead of being a ritual of complaints about logistical disasters, voting can instead become a civic ritual of discussing the issues with family and friends, then calmly mailing in a ballot when each voter is ready.

It's time for a voting reform with no lines, no chads, and no faulty machines.

The Oregon Experience

Oregon Secretary of State, Vote by Mail Resources
Portland Tribune, "Oregon blazes mail trail"
Commission on Federal Election Reform, Ballot Integrity and Voting by Mail: The Oregon Experience
Oregon Voter Rights Coalition

Campaigns in Other States

Vote by Mail Project, Early and Absentee Voting Laws
Washington State, SB 5744 and HB 1754 (enacted laws allowing counties to choose Vote by Mail)
California, AB 867 (Vote by Mail pilot project bill)
Arizona, Vote by Mail Arizona
Hawaii SB 642 and SB 1184

Advantages of Vote by Mail

Bill Bradbury, "Vote by Mail: the Real Winner is Democracy," Washington Post
Sam Rosenfeld, On the Oregon Trail, The American Prospect
"Vote by Mail: An Exchange," The American Prospect

Election Reform Synergy

Public Campaign
Americans for Campaign Reform, Just $6
Demos, Election Day Registration




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Eye on the Right

While progressives spend their time working to make voting more accessible and representative, conservatives seem to have a problem encouraging voting at all. The most recent examples -- conservative activists in New Hampshire conspired to jam phones at a get-out-the-vote bank run by their opponents. The scandal may run all the way up to the White House and has also touched Haley Barbour, the man who just may truly qualify as America's worst Governor.

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Matt Singer
Editor, Stateside Dispatch