Voting-by-mail is relatively new on our electoral landscape. This method was first tried in Monterey, California in 1977. Since that time, hundreds of elections have been held by mail – from local ballot initiatives all the way up to some contests for federal office.
Advocates for mail balloting argue that because of its strong democratic tradition, the United States should continue to eradicate barriers to the franchise, and make voting easier through mail-in elections.
Advantages of Voting-by-Mail
Mail balloting has several advantages over traditional polling. First, it is cost effective. Second, it has resulted in increased participation among voters. Third, it is easier for election officials to conduct. Fourth, it allows for a more accurate picture of eligible voters, by keeping voting lists up-to-date. Fifth, it gives voters a longer opportunity to study the ballot and find answers to their questions.
For example, between 1995 and 1997 in Oregon, counties saved over $1 million on three vote-by-mail special elections. If, during that same period, primary and general elections had been conducted by mail, Oregon counties could have saved an additional $3 million.
Every statistic shows that voting by mail is more convenient for voters and that it increases turnout. For example, by examining the turnout before and after seven Washington State counties conducted mail balloting in 1994, we get a good picture. In the 1990 state primary in these counties, they had a combined average turnout of 38 percent. After those counties went to an all mail-in ballot, the combined average turnout for the same counties was 53 percent. That is an increase of 15 percent, or, nearly 40 percent more people came to the polls. One county saw its turnout increase to 68 percent, another county’s turnout – in a primary – increased to nearly 72 percent. Other jurisdictions have experienced similar jumps in voter participation. In the 1996 Oregon Republican and Democratic Presidential Primaries, Oregon led the nation in its participation rate. Over 53.7 percent of Oregon voters mailed their ballots for the primaries. New Hampshire ranked second for state participation at 45 percent.
Conducting elections by mail is much easier on the election administrators. Particularly in local elections, primaries, and local ballot questions, mail-in elections make sense as a place to start and to experiment. Mail balloting in such local elections has also resulted in increased turnout.
The Federal Election Commission book “Innovations in Election Administration 11: All-Mail-Ballot Elections” discusses the advantages of mail balloting for election administrators well:
No pollworkers includes: no recruitment; no notices to be sent; no classes to conduct; no distribution and retrieval of election day supplies; no last-minute cancellations from workers who had agreed to serve; no paychecks to cut and mail; no W-2’s to send; no pre-dawn election-day hours to line up replacement workers. No polling places includes no polling place leases, telephones, utilities; no searching for or preparation of accessible locations; no frantic phone calls about locked doors; no preparation, set-up, tear-down, or emergency repairs of voting machines or devices; no confusion about where people must go to vote.
In addition, with more people voting absentee, using mail balloting exclusively avoids election administrators from essentially conducting two elections – an absentee election and a polling place election. There is more room for corruption when election administration officials have to basically conduct two parallel systems.
Voter lists are much easier to accurately maintain with mail balloting. This is because ballots that are returned to election officials as undeliverable highlight registrations that must be checked. This helps election officials purge their registration rolls of ineligible voters.
A more informed voting public is cited as another advantage of mail-in balloting. If an individual has two weeks between when he or she receives a ballot and when it must be returned, this allows a better opportunity for voters to study the issues, to clarify any points of confusion, and get questions answered.
The Oregon Model: A Success in Mail Balloting
Voting-by-mail has been adopted by the State of Oregon for all elections, after increasing numbers of Oregonians requested to become “permanent absentee” voters – or citizens who always receive absentee ballots rather than physically going to the polls. By 1996, almost half of all votes cast in Oregon were by “permanent absentee” voters. Oregon first tried statewide mail-in balloting in a 1995 special election, previously a number of individual counties experimented with mail-in balloting.
During this 1995 election, Oregon became the nation’s first state to exclusively use mail balloting to fill a federal office. In this special election to fill the seat of former U.S. Senator Bob Packwood, voting-by-mail was used in the party primaries in December, then in the general special election held on January 30, 1996.
More than 66 percent of Oregon’s registered voters cast ballots in the 1996 special election – this was outstanding considering that the nation’s previous special election for Senate drew only 21 percent of registered voters to the polls in Texas. Further, the 1994 national general election only brought out 56 percent turnout.
Oregon reports of the all-mail 1996 Senate special election, that “not a single formal complaint [of fraud] surfaced, even though 1.8 million ballots were cast in this hard-fought, highly partisan contest.” Further, Secretary of State Phil Keisling noted that “During the 15 years that Oregon has held mail elections, only one case of fraud has been prosecuted.”
The Oregon Secretary of State’s office has some very informative material on mail balloting at: http://www.sos.state.or.us/executive/policy-initiatives/vbm/execvbm.htm. Linked to this page are facts and figures about Oregon’s experience with voting-by-mail.
Criticisms of Voting-by-Mail
Some supporters and critics of mail balloting share one concern: that voting-by-mail could further alienate us from one another. Election Day in the United States can be a time when townspeople congregate at the polls and visit with neighbors. Traditional voting can bring real political energy to the polls and facilitate personal contact that mail balloting does not encourage. Whether that ought to outweigh the benefits of greater civic participation in our electoral system is open to debate.
Corrupting the integrity of the secret ballot and opening the system to coercion are other criticisms of the mail-in ballot. Because private voting booths in public buildings ensure secrecy in how an individual votes, there can be no coercion. With a mail-in ballot, critics theorize that abusive spouses, bosses, or other influential people could coerce individual voters with little fear that they would be reported to election officials. In the hundreds of elections conducted by mail so far, however, there has been scant evidence validating this concern.
Critics further question the requirement that voters must affix a 33-cent stamp to their mail ballot in order to get it to the election commission. This postage – while only a small amount – is seen as a poll tax by some, who argue that if an individual does not have a 33-cent stamp, they may be at the bottom of the economic ladder. Whether out of inconvenience or through lack of funds, individuals may not have a stamp to mail their ballot. To some, the small cost of the stamp is irrelevant, the principle that voting should be free is the paramount consideration. Of course, this could be solved through the state paying postage, even though [courts have ruled that a stamp does not constitute a poll tax(?)]. Further, some states, including Oregon, have sites where voters may drop off their ballots without paying postage.
Lastly, critics believe that voters will make their choices, return their ballots before the end of the deadline, and then learn new pieces of information as the campaign winds down that would change their vote. Once the ballot has been dropped back into the mail, however, there is no way to change one’s vote.
Where is Vote-by-Mail Used?
In some places, mail-in voting is only used for ballot questions, not for candidate races.
Oregon has gone to all mail-in balloting. Other states, including: Colorado, Florida, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Washington State, allow mail-in voting at one level or another, and may have restrictions on whether mail ballots may be used only for ballot questions, non-partisan races, etc