Why Everyone Should Vote By Mail

I worked over the weekend to complete the digital version of our January/February issue of the magazine. Our cover article is a fascinating piece by Phil Keisling who served as Oregon secretary of state from 1991 to 1999 and is currently the director of the Center for Public Service at Portland State University.

Keisling is pushing the merits of universal vote by mail (UVBM) voting. In particular, he is trying to demonstrate that UVBM voting has more promise to boost voter participation than other reforms like automatic registration that are more popular in Democratic Party circles.

After all, you can register all the people you want to vote but that doesn’t mean that they’ll actually turn out in a primary or when there’s no one prominent on the ballot. If you send everyone a ballot in the mail, however, voting becomes a lot easier and much harder to simply forget.

The three states that used UVBM in 2014 had tremendous turnout even though only one of them had a competitive race for either governor or senator.

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.

If you’re goal is to boost turnout, voting by mail has proven itself a winner.

But there are a lot of other upsides. One is that it’s a lot easier to figure out who and what you’re voting for if you can sit down with your ballot and your laptop.

How many of us, voting at a traditional polling place, have felt the pressure to rush through the process, picking candidates, especially down-ballot ones, almost at random? Voting by mail, at your kitchen or dining room table, is unhurried. You can use the Internet to learn more about candidates’ policy positions and views, or look for newspaper editorials. You can reach out to knowledgeable relatives, friends, and colleagues who might know more than you do about a particular race. The result is more considered and intelligent voting.

Then there’s that pesky non-existent in-person voter fraud. With no in-person voting, there can’t be any non-existent in-person voter fraud (sorry, ACORN!), and the results are much more secure with actual ballots (mailed or otherwise) than they are with voting machines.

Mail-based voting systems today are far less risky than most polling place elections, precisely because they distribute ballots (and electoral risk) in such a decentralized way. To have any reasonable chance of success, an organized effort to defraud a mail-based system and its safeguards must involve hundreds (if not thousands) of separate acts, all of them individual felonies, that must both occur and go undetected to have any chance of success.

Contrast that to the risks inherent in polling place elections that increasingly rely on direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting systems and proprietary software systems that both record and tally votes. A single successful software hack potentially could affect thousands of votes. It’s the difference between “retail” fraud and “wholesale” fraud. Or, as one county clerk once put it to me, “Ever wonder why no one bothers to counterfeit pennies? If you’re going to risk the jail time, twenties and hundreds make a lot more sense.”

I’ll let you read the whole thing, but I want to give you a taste of the full range of benefits of UVBM elections.

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.

I think the Republicans who actually run this country are getting sick of having to apologize for every compromise and worrying about a successful primary challenge if they’re simply willing to vote to keep the government operating. They’d welcome higher turnout elections, especially in primaries, because it would protect them somewhat from the nihilistic brigades that are now their party’s most committed voters.

Democrats would like higher turnout elections in general, both because they tend to do better in high turnout elections and because high voter participation is an aspirational goal of most liberal policy wonks–it is seen as a sign of a healthy democracy.

It’s not partisan advantage that really sells the idea, although partisans on both sides could benefit. It’s the cost-savings, the greater security of the tally, the better informed decision making of the voters, the increased convenience, and, yes, the broader political participation of the electorate.

People should take a closer look at UVBM elections. They can solve a lot of problems all at the same time.

Again, please read the whole thing.

Martin Longman

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