Vote-By-Mail Programs Could Be a Key to Retaking the House

With all the attention being given to the presidential primary and the disarray of the Republican field, it’s easy to forget that even a successful 2016 election for Democrats won’t amount to much if Republicans continue to dominate midterm elections. With the exception of possible foreign policy and cabinet differences, it’s unlikely that either Clinton or Sanders will look very different from one another when set against the giant red blockade of the Republican House. To truly move America back in a more progressive economic direction, Democrats will have to solve the turnout problem.

Seasoned campaign operatives on the left already know that one of the best ways to do this is by increasing the number of voters registered to vote by mail. We already know that vote-by-mail voters are several times likelier to vote than poll voters. This is why the state-level Democratic parties, often in conjunction with the Democratic Congressional and Senatorial Campaign Committees out of Washington DC, have been conducting vote-by-mail conversion drives for the better part of the last decade with rampant success. Where vote-by-mail used to be seen as the province of an older, more established conservative electorate, it is now a progressive tool used to increase turnout among more marginal liberal-leaning voters.

I can attest this from direct personal experience. During my tenure as chairman of the Ventura County Democratic Party in California I helped carry out and organize the coordinated VBM conversion program that was crucial in electing Democratic congresswoman Julia Brownley in the hotly contested 26th Congressional District in 2012, and re-electing her in 2014.

And just as converting poll voters to mail voters increases their individual turnout, the preponderance of the evidence suggests that converting entire elections to vote-by-mail can also help increase turnout. My Washington Monthly colleague Phil Keisling has written a tremendous and exhaustively researched piece detailing how mail-only elections can have significant turnout effects. The case of Oregon is a singular example of how well it can work:

Again, contrast Oregon with perennial battleground state Ohio, which has similar middling-to-low national rankings (in the 2010 census) in age, high school graduates, and per capita income, but only a 3 percent Latino population (compared with Oregon’s 12 percent). Oregon’s 2012 presidential election active registered voter turnout beat Ohio by 11 percent; in the 2014 midterms, by 22 percent.

We also know that vote-by-mail elections had a small but positive effect in both California and Washington state:

In Washington, researchers found that switching to all-mail elections increased overall participation by about three percentage points in presidential and midterm elections. In the California pilot, after the Nov. 3 elections, the San Mateo County elections office received 105,325 ballots out of the approximately 353,000 that were mailed. That’s 29.5 percent voter turnout, or 4.1 percent more than a similar off-year polling place election in 2013, when 25.4 percent of registered voters cast their ballots.

In fact, prior to reading Keisling’s piece I had thought the debate over vote-by-mail conversion had already been settled in progressive circles. As he notes toward the end of the article:

So let’s do a quick recap. 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.

He then lists a range of objections from voter fraud concerns to registration prioritization that, again, I thought had long been resolved. First, vote-by-mail does not create any provable significant increase in fraud. Second, it does not privilege conservative electorates any longer (if it ever did.) Third, an infrequent voter who is converted to vote by mail is likelier to vote than a person who has never voted before and is newly passively registered.

It seems to me that objections to universal vote-by-mail don’t actually come from people deeply involved in Democratic county committees, state parties or even the DNC, DCCC and DSCC. The arguments seem, rather, to be coming from academics, foundations and think tanks that are all-too-often behind the times and comparatively lacking in direct campaign experience.

It’s possible that universal vote-by-mail may not make a huge difference in changing the balance of electoral power. But it’s certainly worth a try. The available evidence seems to suggest it might just be a key piece of the puzzle.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.