The Most Effective Voter Suppression Strategy: Requiring Polling Places

As a former Oregon Secretary of State (and chief elections official), I’m glad the courts have invalidated or postponed various voter suppression laws cynically cloaked as “election fraud prevention.” Yet in winning these hard-fought battles, voting rights advocates are losing the much larger war – and most don’t even realize it.

In 48 states, there’s a far more effective voter suppression strategy than requiring photo IDs at the polls. It’s requiring polling places, period.

In 1998, Oregon voters decided to abolish these Norman Rockwell-esque patheons to civic virtue – and force the government to send their ballots directly to them. (Washington switched fully to this system in 2012).

The result? Consistently high – often, the nation’s highest – turn out rates of registered voters. If all 50 states used this system, at least 20 million additional votes could be cast nationwide each two-year election cycle- and perhaps as many as 50 million.

What about fraud? Coercion? Stolen ballots? Other election mischief? After hundreds of millions of ballots cast, the actual incidents in Oregon- and then, only of individual voter fraud — can be counted on two hands.

Widely dubbed “Vote By Mail,” Oregon’s system is more accurately “Universal Ballot Delivery” via the mail. After voting their ballots, Oregonians either mail them back – a 45 cent stamp costs far less than gasoline, bus fare, or time off work – or return them in person (which about 20 percent do).

All voters’ signatures on the outside envelope must be verified against the ones on their original voter registration cards. Signatures can change over time, so clear and strict rules exist for updating signatures before final certification.

Through careful signature verification – and constant updating of voter registration lists, since mailed ballots can’t be forwarded -Oregon’s system runs significantly less real risk of meaningful fraud, compared to polling place elections. Recounts in extremely close races are based on paper ballots, of every vote – not receipts or electronic voting machines. (Without these machines, there’s no danger of software hackers casting ersatz votes by the thousands, either).

In November 2010, just two states exceeded 70 percent turnout of their registered voters: Oregon and Washington. Only Minnesota (67percent) and Wisconsin (63 percent) – which both have same-day voter registration — came close. Key states that didn’t break 50 percent include Ohio (49 percent), Pennsylvania (47 percent), Virginia (44 percent), Indiana (41 percent), New York (40 percent), and Texas (38 percent)

The Oregon system’s potential is even greater in primary elections — the party nomination contests that now determine the real winners in the vast majority of our 435 Congressional and 7,300+ state legislative seats. The 39 percent turnout rate of registered voters in both Oregon’s and Washington’s 2012 primaries wasn’t stunning – until you compare it to most states’ 15-20 percent. States failing to muster even 10 percent include New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Virginia, and Delaware.

Many election researchers ignore or even denigrate Oregon’s performance because they measure states’ voting rates against something dubbed “Voting Eligible Population.” Since this “VEP yardstick” includes unregistered adults, states lacking ‘same day registration” – or those with larger portions of citizens who are unregistered because they’re poor, less educated, and/or minorities – tend to fare poorly.

Oregon — with 25 percent of its adult citizens unregistered — has all four strikes against it compared to Minnesota. (Even so, we still placed 5thin George Mason University’s U.S. Election Project’s VEP-based analysis of the 2010 election). Oregon’s system is actually helping it overcome an otherwise “low turnout” destiny; Minnesota might well have topped 80 percent in registered voter turnout with our system.

The VEP yardstick also incorporates a glaring fallacy. How can a particular method designed to help ensure that already registered voters actually cast their ballots, be expected to affect whether citizens choose to register in the first place?

Misplaced sentimentality is certainly another barrier to this reform. After initially embracing, as a freshman legislator, what I call the “crunch of autumn leaves” argument in opposing a bill to expand the system , I changed by mind soon after becoming Secretary of State.

Most Oregonians experience a much different Election Day reality than the idealized version. These involve such things as having to work late or go out of town; sick children; long polling lines, bad traffic, and/or terrible weather.

I realized we were confusing a particular ritual of democracy, with its true essence — which is participation. And if vote by mail elections could be run with the same – or even greater – integrity, wasn’t the polling place itself just another version of poll taxes, literacy tests, photo ID rules, and other barriers to exercising the franchise?

The specter of fraud is perhaps the most oft-cited criticism of the Oregon system. It’s true that no election is fraud-proof, and absentee ballots do hold special challenges. But a close examination reveals these problems are largely a function of states with poor ballot handling and verification processes, especially where they combine polling place elections with heavy use of absentee ballots.

As Oregon learned before changing its law, these “dual systems” are arguably the worst of both worlds. They inherently breed widespread voter confusion as to where or how to vote. Beleaguered elections officials, charged with operating two election systems in parallel, are more prone to mistakes, and often less vigilant in detecting problems.

Still, actual and documented voter fraud is rare. A recent article in the New York Times – “Error and Fraud at Issue as Absentee Voting Rises” – painted a disturbing picture of an “Everyone Votes by Mail” Election Dystopia. (What’s notable, however, is the article never examined how – much less how well – the Oregon system actually works). A close reading of the piece reveals cases of proven fraud confined to two 2003 Midwest mayoral elections — and two recent cases of alleged fraud, involving an aggregate of about 100 votes, both in Florida. (What, you’re surprised?)

Just think about it: If you’re a highly motivated partisan, desperate to add a vote or three for your candidate or cause, are you really going to risk multiple, felony convictions via signature fraud, stealing mail, or voter coercion?

As one campaign manager once told me, “There are so many more effective, and far less stupid, ways to try to steal an election.”

The final – most powerful – obstacle to this reform is raw politics.

In the 1990s, Democrats fiercely opposed Vote by Mail in Oregon. Republican voters were using absentee ballots more heavily, and were perceived to be “winning” close races because of them. (It’s still a common illusion that absentee ballots can “swing” elections – when what really happens is that they’re simply counted after the polling place votes are tallied, as a basic and necessary precaution against duplicate votes.)

Democratic fears still persist about “voting by mail”, fueled by such moves as Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State mailing absentee ballot applications to all state voters.

But today, Republicans are the fiercest opponents of the Oregon system. Their position seems to be this: more absentee ballots are fine, just don’t send them automatically to all voters. (So if 20 percent of voters utilize this method, the supposed fraud risk is “tolerable” – but if everyone does it, the republic is in grave danger?). Even worse, to avoid the most blatant of inconsistencies, Republicans in many states are now insisting that photo IDs accompany these returned absentee ballots — a “Steal my Identity” risk of far more interest to genuine criminals than ballots.

When voter turnout in elections drop – and plumbs levels that can truly be labeled “abysmal – there are still the same number of “winners.” Therein lies the rub: partisans – at times, on both sides – who prefer to play only to their respective bases.

The ultimate losers aren’t just voters, but the basic underpinnings of our democratic system. Voting is about participation – but it’s also about accountability. By voting, citizens have a tangible stake in the decisions – or lack thereof – of those who are elected. They aren’t just spectators.

Of course, there is no one “cure” for all that ails American democracy. But in terms of a reform that’s simple, familiar, and powerful, automatically sending every American voter his ballot — without their needing to ask for it – is a great place to start.

Phil Keisling

Phil Keisling a Washington Monthly contributing editor, served as Oregon secretary of state (1991-99) and is currently the director of the Center for Public Service at Portland State University.