Obama Should Look at Universal Voting By Mail

President Barack Obama made a lot of points during his hourlong State of the Union speech, but he said that “maybe the most important thing I want to say tonight” is that we need to “fix our politics.” He, of course, talked about terrorism and the turmoil in the Middle East. He discussed the economy and gun violence and immigration. But what really animated him was the problem closest to home. Right there in the audience were 435 members of the House of Representatives who were elected in a system where it’s more accurate to say that they pick their voters than it is to say that the voters pick them. In the audience were 99 senators (Ted Cruz didn’t show up) who the president reminded that “We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families or hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections.” And then he announced, “This is America: We want to make it easier for people to participate. And over the course of this year, I intend to travel the country to push for reforms that do just that.”

Having just published a cover story by former Oregon Secretary of State Phil Keisling on the promise of Universal Voting By Mail (UVBM) the day before, we were of course intrigued to learn that the president plans to barnstorm the country talking about ways to make it easier for people to vote.

To understand how UVMB can boost voter participation, take a look at the following chart. Note that Colorado, Oregon, and Washington are the states (in light green) that use Universal Voting By Mail.

Figure 1. States with Universal Vote by Mail Had Higher Turnout Among Active Registered Voters in 2014 than Battleground States Without UVBM

Keisling explains the numbers this way:

In 2014, Oregon’s active voter turnout rate was 70.9 percent—23 percentage points higher than the national average—despite having no hotly contested top races. Colorado, which had both a close Senate and governor’s race, logged a 71.9 percent ARV rate in its debut UVBM election. Washington State had no U.S. Senate or governor’s race in 2014, but its 54 percent ARV turnout still handily beat the national average. (In 2010, thirty-eight of Washington’s thirty-nine counties used all mail ballots, and its 71.2 percent rate that year was second only to Oregon’s.)

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the way UVBM changes voting behavior is how it boosts participation in low-interest elections like the 2014 contests in Oregon and Washington, or in primaries and municipal elections where nothing sexy is on the ballot.

Democrats and their progressive allies aren’t bereft of ideas to boost voter participation. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are both championing promising reforms, such as automatically registering all American citizens based on driver’s licenses or birth records. But no other solution holds anywhere near the potential to boost actual voter turnout. Evidence from Oregon, Colorado, and Washington suggests that if other states adopted universal vote by mail (UVBM), they could increase their registered voter turnout in midterm elections by 10 to 15 percent. Even more dramatically, they could double or triple their primary election turnout, which would almost certainly reduce the inordinate influence of take-no-prisoners ideologues.

Young voters are notorious for not turning out in large numbers, but their participation really plummets in non-presidential elections. Yet, this problem is hugely mitigated in UVBM states.

Our first-of-its-kind research is ongoing, but our bottom line finding is this: in states with UVBM, turnout among younger voters (those from eighteen to thirty-four) is dramatically higher—double or more the rate in non-UVBM states. For instance, Figure 3 (page 34) shows the percentage of registered eighteen- to thirty-four-year-olds who voted in 2014 by state. Compare Oregon’s 45.6 percent turnout for this cohort—again, in a relatively dull election year—with rates in battleground states like North Carolina (22 percent), Kentucky (26 percent), Pennsylvania (19.7 percent), and Iowa (27.9 percent).

And consider this: voter turnout of eighteen- to thirty-four-year-olds in the battleground state of Ohio for the 2012 presidential contest was just 3 percentage points higher than Oregon’s midterm rate for that cohort.

Figure 3. 2014 Turnout Among 18- to 34-Year-Old Registered Voters in 17 States

It would be disingenuous if I didn’t acknowledge that higher turnout elections, and especially higher turnout elections among the 18-to-34 contingent, would presently benefit the Democratic Party. I expect that Republicans will oppose the expansion of UVBM into new states for this reason. But I want to make three points anyway.

First, young voters preferred Ronald Reagan and there’s nothing immutable about the Democrats’ current advantage with people younger than thirty-five. If the Republicans are self-confident, they should embrace the challenge of winning the allegiance of young voters again.

Second, the Republicans might not like higher turnout in general elections, but they’d probably like it in primaries. Higher turnout in primaries would reduce the influence of the mouth-breathers who expect them to default on the nation’s credit and shut down the government as part of their annual budget negotiations.

Third, the president should definitely put our cover story on his reading list. If he’s looking for reforms that will increase voter participation and at the same time reduce the influence of big money and the most unreasonable partisans, UVBM is the best option.

It’s also a money-saver and (perhaps counterintuitively) reduces the risk of fraud:

Vote by mail saves money, simplifies elections, and eliminates voting lines. It renders moot the debate over photo ID rules, and lets election officials avoid spending billions on software-enabled (but vulnerable to big-impact hacking) voting equipment. Best of all, it promises double-digit increases in registered voter turnout.

So, we here at the Washington Monthly are encouraged that President Obama is going to embark on this mission, and we’re hoping he comes armed with our ideas.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.