To grasp the true power of universal vote by mail, it’s important to recognize that the act of voting is a four-step process.

Step 1: Voter registration. (In every state except North Dakota, eligible citizens must separately register as voters to qualify to receive a ballot.)
Step 2: Connecting voters with ballots.
Step 3: Marking the ballot.
Step 4: Casting the ballot/voting.

In most voters’ lifetime, major changes have occurred in three of these four steps.

The most dramatic changes have involved voter registration, the key arena for voter-suppression efforts in previous decades. Remember when virtually every citizen was required to register in person, at a single location like the county courthouse in the presence of a notary, during regular business hours? In southern states, many black voters were also required to answer questions like “Name Alabama’s sixty-seven county judges” or “How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?”

Today, registering to vote has never been easier. Federal law requires DMV offices and other government agencies to offer voter registration services (though how proactive and easy this is still varies). Voters can register now by mailed-in postcards. Since 2010, twenty-nine states (including deep-red ones) and Washington, D.C., have passed online registration laws.

Steps 3 and 4, the marking and casting of ballots, have changed a lot too. Long gone are lever-laden voting machines and chad-prone punch cards. Most voters now either use optical-scan (“fill in the bubble”) paper ballots or navigate ATM-like touchscreens. Finished ballots are then put in a secure box or transmitted electronically to be counted.

Largely unchanged, however, is Step 2. As they did a century ago, voters connect with their ballots either by physically going to a designated polling site or by formally requesting (and being approved for) an absentee ballot.

Universal vote by mail fundamentally changes this step. In UVBM, it is the government’s obligation—not the voter’s—to make this connection, by sending every registered voter a ballot.

The distance between Steps 1 and 2 now represents an uncrossed chasm for the majority of America’s registered voters in almost every election save presidential contests. In the 2014 midterms, 83 million registered voters got to Step 4; almost 110 million never even got from Step 1 to Step 2. In party primary elections, the number is closer to 150 million—four times the number reaching Step 2, much less Step 4.

UVBM literally collapses the distance between Steps 1 and 2. All registered voters start at Step 2, rather than Step 1, by receiving their ballot in the mail approximately two weeks before each election.

Unlike in polling places—where Steps 2, 3, and 4 follow in rapid succession—in a UVBM system days or weeks may pass before a voter even gets to Step 3. Some voters never will, but the net gain from this change is still dramatic. Get every voter to Step 2, and far more are likely to get to Step 4. (While the “blank ballots” get thrown out or recycled, without a valid signature they’re no more capable of producing a fraudulent vote than store-bought eggs are of hatching a chicken.)

Figure 1. 2014 Turnout Among Active Registered Voters in Universal Vote by Mail States Compared to Top 10 Early in Person Voting States


This framework helps shed light on various other election reform proposals often championed as better alternatives to UVBM. Several of these—such as election day/same-day registration (EDR/SDR) and automatic voter registration (AVR)—can complement and augment UVBM’s power (though in a secondary way).

But one idea in particular—further expansion of early in-person voting (EIPV) at special polling places in addition to election day polls—isn’t just a far inferior (and much more costly) competitor to UVBM. It’s also a policy throwback that should go the way of hanging chads and butterfly ballots.

AVR targets a completely different part of the voting spectrum. Its sole purpose is getting more unregistered citizens to Step 1. Oregon, alone among the states, will combine both reforms for the 2016 presidential race, where the intrinsic interest among sporadic voters will clearly be highest. But for the vast majority of elections—i.e, midterms and especially party primary contests—AVR targets the far smaller end of America’s voter turnout problem.

Certainly, every newly registered voter under AVR who actually votes can make a difference. But like the most basic rule of sales, it’s far more productive to focus on your proven, existing customers—that is, already-registered voters—than to chase after those who’ve shown little to no interest in what you’re selling.

Another Step 1 reform is election day/same-day voter registration, a longtime favorite of groups like Demos that debuted during the 1970s in high-turnout states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Maine. EDR/SDR laws, now used in ten states and D.C., allow eligible citizens to register as new voters at the polls on election day. These voters can literally move through all four stages over their lunch hour.

Again, it’s a worthy complement to UVBM, and Colorado’s new law includes it. But lest there be any doubt as to which part of their new law is really powering a big surge in turnout, consider this: according to Colorado election officials, just 8,501 truly new voters registered on election day in 2014—the equivalent of about 0.2 percent of total turnout.

The vast majority of those who take advantage of EDR/SDR laws are already-registered voters who just need to update the information on their registrations. (Minnesota, for example, accurately reported only its truly new registrants—58,114, accounting for 2 percent of its 2014 turnout—while most other states’ figures include existing voters making updates.) To be sure, EDR/SDR laws make this more convenient. But similarly situated voters in other states also have such options, though the ease of doing so will vary.

Which brings us to early in-person voting—a seductive idea on the surface that may well prove the biggest obstacle to reversing America’s voter turnout crisis. EIPV laws—now in place in thirty-three states and D.C.—are premised on the idea that a far better way to increase the turnout of already-registered voters is to replicate or “clone” even more versions of the traditional policy place. That is, to set up special voting centers that are accessible for up to several weeks prior to election day itself, including on weekends.

It’s demonstrably true that just as mailed absentee ballots are now disproportionately used by older, whiter (and more Republican) voters, early voting options are most used by younger, more diverse (and, yes, more Democratic) voters. And in key EIPV states where Sunday voting is allowed, Democratic get-out-the-vote operatives have organized “Souls to the Polls” efforts that encourage their voters (especially African Americans) to perform their civic duty right after Sunday church services. (Conservatives lately have started to do more of this, too.)

In recent years, conservative Republican legislators in states like North Carolina, Florida, and Ohio have worked hard to roll back existing EIPV laws, especially weekend voting. Democrats—not surprisingly—have responded with outrage and a flurry of lawsuits alleging that such cutbacks target minority voters.

Conservative opposition seems to have caused Democrats and their progressive allies to embrace EIPV all the more (in stark contrast to UVBM). But as Figure 1 dramatically suggests, the Democrats have chosen exactly the wrong “enemy of my enemy” to embrace. The chart shows the active registered voter turnout for the top ten EIPV states during the 2014 midterm election, based on EAC records of the percentage of all ballots cast through this method. As you can see, the top four states don’t even meet the national average. Among all ten, only Arkansas (one of 2014’s big battlegrounds) exceeds the lowest-performing UVBM state, Washington (which had no U.S. Senate or governor’s race on the ballot).

The average active registered voter turnout for the top ten EIPV states is 47 percent, 1 percent below the national average. Meanwhile, the three UVBM states had a 65 percent average turnout—and two (Colorado and Oregon) exceeded 70 percent.

If you convince yourself that there’s no alternative to ballot delivery at polling places, then EIPV is better than nothing. But it will also mean a deeper, even more costly commitment to an archaic ballot-delivery business model, with more voting machines and poll workers. But if we disenthrall ourselves from the dead hand of the electoral past, a whole new set of possibilities opens up.

When every registered voter starts at Step 2, get-out-the-vote efforts take on a whole different flavor. Today, GOTV involves a wide range of strategies—door-knocking, phone-banking, robocalling—to encourage, cajole, convince, and even beg voters to “Get to the polls to receive (and then cast) your ballots!” Car and van pools are then organized; in many places drivers cross their fingers that the roads aren’t rain soaked, icy, or snow covered.

In a UVBM system, voters already have their ballots—perhaps on a kitchen or dining room table, or behind a refrigerator magnet. The GOTV message is much simpler: “Please take a few minutes—over coffee, after the kids are in bed, perhaps over a glass of wine—and mark and return your ballot.” For many voters, a 49-cent stamp is far cheaper than gas or bus fare, or having to take time off work. Other voters will prefer to personally return their ballot. And since vote return records are public—updated daily, and sometimes more frequently—GOTV efforts (as in Oregon) can be increasingly targeted to voters with still-unreturned ballots.

It’s true that “Souls to the Ballot Drop Sites” doesn’t have the same mellifluous ring to it.

But if this is your main reason to overlook the intelligence and substance of UVBM for the shimmering (but only skin-deep) appeal of EIPV, think about the fact that GOTV organizers will now have an even better message: “Put your already-completed and sealed ballots in your coats and purses, then bring them to church with you. Afterward, we can all go to the same ballot drop site. What won’t we find? Lines of any kind—and certainly no photo ID requirements. Finish doing your civic duty—and you’ll still have the rest of the day to celebrate with friends and family.”

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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.