In the lead-up to this year’s primaries, Ohio state Representative Michael Skindell got a call from a voter with considerable clout—his mother. Like many in the state, she felt frustrated having to apply, year after year, to receive mail-in ballots––especially during this year’s electoral chaos, when a tumultuous redistricting battle in the state led to primary elections in both May and August. Why, she asked, couldn’t she just sign up once and be done with it—that is, become a permanent absentee voter?
The calls flooded in, not only from Skindell’s mother, but from her neighbors, too—older voters who told him it was confusing to keep track of off-year elections to ensure that they applied for absentee ballots in time. Skindell’s mother and her friends joked that with age, remembering to vote is hard enough, let alone during odd circumstances like this year’s.
The concern is valid, whether one is “aged” or not. August’s primary held the lowest voter turnout in a statewide primary since at least 1962, with less than 8 percent of voters turning out. Even though Ohio, like 26 other states, has a no-excuse absentee voting policy, the need to sign up for a mailed ballot every election likely contributed to the low turnout.
Responding to frustrations like these, Skindell decided to introduce legislation to create a permanent mail-in ballot application list for the state. Giving voters the option of “single sign-up”—that is, automatically having their ballots mailed to them, rather than having to remember to apply before every election—would seem like a simple, noncontroversial reform. But in today’s polarized political environment, it wasn’t seen that way by Skindell’s Republican colleagues, who have a supermajority in the Ohio legislature and are allowing Donald Trump’s attacks on mail-in voting to dictate their agenda. To make any progress at all, Skindell chose to introduce a compromise bill that would allow voters to automatically get an application to apply for absentee voting, rather than just a ballot, as he would have preferred. Yet even that concession wasn’t enough for the Ohio GOP, which has thus far been largely resistant to even considering the idea—pitting them against the will of the people, as a 2020 poll showed that 60 percent of Ohioans were in favor of creating a permanent vote-by-mail list.
Similar battles over single sign-up are taking place around the country, and are emblematic both of the larger vote-by-mail policy debate and of electoral reform more generally. Democrats are trying to tweak the electoral system to make it easier to cast ballots, but even the most seemingly uncontroversial of those efforts are running into a wall of opposition from Republicans. Voters are likely to be the losers in that contest, but, given the popularity of policies that make it easier to vote, it’s not clear that Republicans will be the winners.
Nearly 24 years ago, Oregon solved the problem of repeating absentee sign-ups by making vote by mail the default for the entire state—every registered voter is mailed a ballot weeks before the election, which they can fill out at home and return either through the mail, in person at a polling place, or in a drop box. Since then, seven more states—Washington, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Vermont, and Hawaii—have gone the full “vote at home” route. Prior to 2020, this was not a partisan issue: Utah, for instance, is an overwhelmingly red state, whereas Hawaii is overwhelmingly blue. Recent research, meanwhile, confirms that voter turnout goes up the most in full vote-at-home states, as Paul Glastris noted recently in the Washington Monthly.
But it’s not necessary to go full vote at home to make single sign-up work. Washington, D.C., and six states—Montana, Arizona, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, and Illinois—already have permanent absentee lists available to all voters, some enacted just in the past two years. Eleven other states, including Alabama, Delaware, Kansas, and New York, offer permanent vote by mail to people with disabilities, people over 65, or both. Single sign-up not only makes voting more convenient but also saves taxpayers money, because, among other things, local election officials “don’t have to spend time processing the applications,” notes Phil Keisling, former secretary of state of Oregon and chair of the National Vote at Home Institute, a nonprofit research group.
Montana and Arizona were the first non-vote-at-home states to enact single sign-up––Montana in 2005, Arizona in 2007. At the time, the balance of power in Montana’s state legislature was nearly even. Meanwhile, Arizona had a Republican majority in both chambers of its state legislature. Before Republicans became captured by the “Big Lie” about election fraud, two comfortably Bush-voting states, each with their own state party balances, both welcomed single sign-up reform.
Years later, several blue states were inspired to adopt single sign-up policies by the success of mail-in voting during the pandemic. Virginia passed no-excuse mail-in voting and a permanent mail-in list in 2020, leading about 60 percent of voters to vote absentee later that year—an increase from around 14 percent in 2016. (Virginia’s absentee voters include those who vote early in person. About 956,000 people, or 21 percent of voters, returned mailed ballots.) Maryland, where half of the electorate voted by mail in 2020, enacted a permanent mail-in list in 2021. (The law didn’t go into effect until 2022 because Republican Governor Larry Hogan refused to sign it.) In 2020, Washington, D.C., mailed ballots to all registered voters—and has continued doing so on a temporary basis since. The city council is now considering moving to universal mail-in voting.
Just last year, Illinois enacted a permanent vote-by-mail list, which takes effect before the 2022 midterms. Illinois voter Matt Slade has voted by mail in every election since 2014, beginning when he worked on a night shift at a workplace an hour from his home. He has already signed up for Illinois’s new, permanent list. “It was very easy for me to make the decision so I don’t have to request a mail-in ballot every single election,” Slade told me in a Twitter direct message. “It’s just much easier for me to early vote by mail than it is to try make it on election day.”
And in New Jersey in July, Governor Phil Murphy signed a voting package including a measure that allows voters to sign up for the state’s permanent mail-in ballot list online. The state has had this list since 2009, when they allowed voters to apply for absentee ballots for a single election, all elections in a calendar year, or all general elections. This was expanded in 2018 to allow applications for single elections and all future elections. Now, the state is bringing the sign-up process online, allowing voters to indicate their preferences for future ballots through a virtual portal. Like many other states, Jersey’s experience during the pandemic proved the workability and popularity of the system. “Following the expansion of vote-by-mail, we saw the need to implement common sense, modernizing reform allowing voters to apply for a mail-in ballot online,” Anthony Verrelli, the New Jersey assemblyman who cosponsored the latest voting bill, told me in a statement. “Requesting a mail-in ballot must be simple, easy, and accessible for all New Jersey voters.”
Yet even as these ideas are beginning to catch fire, so too are they becoming newly partisan, including in some states that were early adopters. In Michigan, grassroots organizers have placed a referendum question on the November ballot that includes the creation of a permanent mail-in ballot list—a provision Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has endorsed. Currently, Michigan, alongside Minnesota and Pennsylvania, allows any voter to join a permanent list to receive mail-in applications, not ballots, before election time, similar to what Skindell’s compromise bill would do in Ohio. But this people-powered initiative in Michigan ran into Republican intransigence. Michigan’s four-person Board of State Canvassers split on whether to allow the proposal to appear on the ballot. Both Democrats voted in favor, while both Republicans voted against––the same vote total as when the board was asked to allow an abortion rights initiative to appear on the ballot. The state’s supreme court stepped in and ordered that both measures be placed on the fall ballot.
In Arizona, the GOP-controlled legislature now wants to take away the permanent absentee list, which 75 percent of voters use. In May 2021, Governor Doug Ducey, a Republican, signed a bill that will allow the removal of voters from the permanent mail-in list if they do not vote over two election cycles. Arizonans attempted to rally for a ballot initiative that would repeal this bill, but legal challenges by conservative groups led the state supreme court to block the referendum. Conditions could soon get even worse, since two prominent Republican candidates, both 2020 election deniers, are openly attacking mail-in and early voting: Kari Lake, who is running for governor, and Mark Finchem, running for secretary of state.
The battle in Arizona illustrates Republicans’ plans to not only resist potential reforms but also erode established ones—revealing a clear disdain for an active, included, and informed electorate. Yet Republicans have chosen—to their own detriment—to swim against the tide of public opinion. The popularity of voting by mail generally, and single sign-up in particular, is clear from how many voters choose to take advantage of it when they’re afforded the opportunity. And once voters grow used to a so-called entitlement—Obamacare, for example, or the constitutional right to an abortion—they are loath to give it up. Once again, Republicans are putting themselves in the unpopular position of being the party that takes rights away.