We Can Change America’s Political Map by Letting Voters Mail It In

In this issue of the magazine, there are no stories about Donald Trump. There aren’t any about Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush, either. Or about Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, or Martin O’Malley.

It’s not that we don’t think the 2016 presidential contest is important. Of course it is. Indeed, on our website you’ll find some of the shrewdest up-to-the-minute analysis of the race available anywhere.

In our print magazine, however, we tend to steer clear of subjects the rest of the press is already talking about incessantly. Instead, we prefer to focus on the big, over-the-horizon issues that deserve immediate attention but aren’t getting it.

In the realm of politics, the biggest under-examined issue right now—next to the possibility that the Republican presidential nominee actually wins in November, a subject for another day—is what happens if the Democratic nominee wins but the GOP retains control of at least the House. The answer, most probably, is more gridlock, more public cynicism about government, and little progress on the great issues facing the country, from a declining middle class to aging infrastructure to rising retirement costs.

The reason for this (quite likely) scenario is a political dynamic rooted in changing demographics. The voters who provided Barack Obama with decisive wins in 2008 and 2012—young people, unmarried women, minorities—typically don’t cast ballots in midterm elections at anywhere near the rate they do in presidential years. Meanwhile, the Republican base, though in relative decline, is made up of groups—older white Americans, married couples—who typically vote in every election.

We’ve now had several cycles of this seesawing turnout pattern (Democrats haven’t won a majority of midterm voters since 2006). Add to that the GOP’s control of redistricting in 2010 and the self-sorting of Democratic voters into compact geographic areas, and voila, you get the situation we’re in now. Republicans haven’t won a majority of voters in five of the last six presidential elections. Yet they’ve built up what seems like an impregnable majority in Congress.

Democratic political professionals are perfectly aware of this dilemma. But they don’t talk openly about it. “Privately, some backbench Democrats express frustration that the leadership has no plan to try to recapture the majority,” writes Matt Yglesias of Vox.com. But, he adds, “In their defense, it’s not like anyone outside the leadership has a great plan either.”

That’s where this issue of the magazine comes in. In our cover story, Washington Monthly contributing editor Phil Keisling makes the case for the one electoral reform with the best chance of both reviving the franchise and changing the political map. It’s called universal vote by mail (UVBM). Instead of making voters go to polling places or apply for absentee ballots, under UVBM all registered voters have ballots mailed to them at their homes. They then have two weeks to fill those ballots out and mail them back, or drop them off at designated “ballot drop sites.”

The system is already up and running in three states: Oregon, Washington, and Colorado. Keisling, a former Oregon secretary of state now at Portland State University, has compiled unique data comparing voter turnout in those states to the rest of the county. The bottom line: if other states adopted UVBM, they could boost their registered voter turnout in midterm elections by 10 to 15 percent, with double-digit increases among Democratic-leaning eighteen- to thirty-four-year-olds.

UVBM also renders fights over voter ID laws moot: “You don’t need a voter ID to fill out a ballot at your own kitchen table,” Keisling notes. It is less expensive to administer than traditional systems based on polling places. And by increasing turnout in primaries, UVBM “would almost certainly reduce the inordinate influence of take-no-prisoners ideologues” in choosing candidates, he adds.

So why aren’t Democrats—and anyone who cares about increasing voter participation—rallying around UVBM? Because election reform experts and progressive voting rights advocates have convinced themselves and others that UVBM will advantage the GOP just like absentee ballots have, that it is more prone to fraud, and that other reforms, like early in-person voting and automatic registration, will work better. As Keisling shows, none of these things are true.

I hope Keisling’s story changes some minds. But the beauty is that UVBM can become a reality even without the support of the powers that be, Democratic or Republican. All that’s needed is for some wealthy political donors—the kind who have successfully passed marijuana legalization and prison reform in the states—to bankroll UVBM via ballot initiatives in the twenty-one states that allow such initiatives, including battleground states like Ohio and Florida. In the end, it may be up to voters to make voting reform happen.

P.S.: Sorry, no “Tilting at Windmills” in this issue. It’ll be back next time.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.