Voting By Mail

[ Posted Tuesday, October 14th, 2014 – 17:29 UTC ]

The Colorado Senate race this year will be a close contest (no matter who wins), if the polling is correct. Poll after poll shows a very tight race. However, pollsters' predictions of who exactly will "turn out" to vote may be flawed this year, in this particular state. Because Colorado, for the first time, will be joining two other states in the West by conducting their election by mail. Every registered voter gets a real ballot (not just a "sample ballot" or a "practice ballot") in the mail, and will be able to easily return their filled-out ballot by mail. They won't be "turning out," one might say, instead they'll be "turning in."

The other two states with full vote-by-mail elections are Oregon and Washington. In 1998 Oregon passed a voter initiative which changed their system to all-mail voting. Washington changed their election law in 2011. In Colorado, 2014 is the first election to be conducted under the vote-by-mail scheme.

In all three states (I believe), voters who are offended by change -- call them "traditionalists" -- still have the option of going down to the local polling place to cast their ballot. Except that it's not really a polling location anymore, so much as a "drop box" for filled-out ballots to be handed in. But for those who consider voting to be a civic rite, a trip down to the polling spot is still possible (this also benefits procrastinators, too -- people who wait until the last minute to vote).

Now, three states is not exactly a "wave of the future" (at least, not yet), but it is an interesting development in American elections, and could get studied quite closely if the advance polling doesn't match the turnout in Colorado's tight Senate race this year. It's a lot harder to predict who is actually going to turn out when it becomes much easier to cast a vote. When voters have weeks to fill out their ballot, and when they can just drop the completed ballot in the mail, it removes a lot of hassle from the process. Voting can be done at any time of the day, any day of the week, and it doesn't even involve leaving your house -- so you can even vote in your pajamas, if you feel so inclined. Making voting easier may change the makeup of the electorate enough to throw off the pollsters' predictions, as a direct result. Surprising numbers of votes could come from demographics who normally don't turn out at high rates, to put this another way. The electorate could wind up being a lot more Republican or a lot more Democratic than anyone expects.

While Colorado's race will no doubt be closely analyzed, what is kind of puzzling is the number of states where the rules for early voting are still very strict. While Oregon, Washington, and Colorado are the only three states to go with full vote-by-mail elections, there are 27 other states where citizens can request a mail-in ballot for any reason under the sun -- "no-excuse early voting." No justification for a mail-in ballot is required, but the voter has to make the request to get one (instead of being automatically mailed a ballot, as in the three "vote-by-mail only" states). In addition, there are six other states where voters can vote early with no excuse necessary, but must do so in person, at early voting polling sites. All told, that adds up to 36 states where some form of early voting is available to any voter who doesn't wish to (or cannot) vote on Election Day, without having to provide a reason.

The map of these states is interesting, because the movement towards ease in voting seems to be moving from west to east. Only one state west of the Mississippi doesn't have no-excuse early voting (Missouri), and it borders the river. Five states in the South don't offer early no-excuse voting (Kentucky, Virginia, South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi), but the highest concentration is in New England, where four out of the six states don't offer any no-excuse early voting (New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut). Four other states complete this list (Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, and Michigan).

In all of these 14 states, voters must not only request an early voting ballot (or absentee ballot), they must also prove (to some extent or another) that they will actually be unavailable to physically vote in their precinct on Election Day. Some states have a high burden of proof, too -- the voter must produce physical evidence (like airline tickets and travel arrangements, for instance, which cover Election Day) to excuse them from having to show up in person at their local polling site.

The three states which have moved to vote-by-mail have largely done so for reasons of convenience and cost. The voters want to maximize convenience in voting, and the government wants to reduce the cost of elections. Indeed, it's a perfect overlap and achieves two goals simultaneously. One might expect that other states might follow this model in the future, because it is a rare change in government that benefits just about everybody concerned. Cheaper and easier are both pretty strong selling points. Especially if the result is an increase in turnout.

But while it'll be interesting to see whether Colorado's turnout matches the polling models or not this year, one has to wonder how long it'll be before the remaining states which require an excuse not to vote on Election Day loosen their election laws. It seems rather anachronistic for voters to have to get a permission from the government to vote more conveniently, in fact. Perhaps the laws made sense long ago, and have just not changed through inaction (in other words: "Why fix it if it ain't broke?").

Election laws have been changing, sometimes drastically, in the past two decades. There was a wave of electronic voting machines -- and then there was a backlash against them. We are currently in a very partisan battle in many states, where Republicans use fears of virtually non-existent "voter fraud" to pass what Democrats rightly call "voter suppression" measures, designed to make it harder in various ways for traditionally-Democratic groups of voters to cast their ballots. This may also be giving rise to a backlash.

But no-excuse early voting is not a partisan issue in any way. This isn't a fight for Democratic voters or Republican voters, this is merely making it easier for everyone to cast a ballot in whatever way is most convenient. This can be seen by looking at the map of which states do not have no-excuse early voting, since it doesn't break down into "red states and blue states" at all. It's more (with apologies to Dr. Seuss) a matter of "old states versus new states," in fact. The older the state is, the more likely it has archaic election laws which were written long ago and haven't been updated in quite some time. The newer the state, the more likely it is open to experimentation with regards to election law, either in an effort to increase voter turnout or just to save some money in the state budget.

My guess is that sooner or later, more states are going to follow the lead of Oregon, Washington, and Colorado, and hold their elections entirely by mail. It's cheaper, it's easier for everyone concerned, and if it is proven to boost turnout then it can only be seen as a smashing success. This will likely follow the pattern and be embraced by the wide-open states in the West before moving to the East. In the meantime, however, those interested in changing election laws for the better might concentrate on the remaining states where government permission is still required to cast a ballot not on Election Day, or not in person. Whatever rationale might have once existed for such strict laws has surely become a thing of the past. When 36 states -- many of them deep red, and many deep blue -- can manage to run fair and free elections without such harsh restrictions, then it seems the time to update and modernize election law in the remaining 14 state is now overdue.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


3 Comments on “Voting By Mail”

  1. [1] 
    TheStig wrote:

    I'd like to see it taken one step further to E-voting. Something along the lines of double blind identity based encryption.

    That said, I do like my ritual of early voting, the trip downtown, 2 quarters in the meter, 1/4 mile walk, 3 escalators to the basement. Circle the numbers. Reverse.

  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:


    Is it safe to assume that the tallys of early voting/mail voting are not released until the end of Election Day???


  3. [3] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    That is correct, but I think early stats are given out as to "how many people registered from each party have returned their early ballots." I am making this assumption because of the depth of information some people now seem to have about what is going on in the Iowa election. Of course, these are state laws, so one state might be more forthcoming than another. But in ALL states, the actual vote totals are never released before the polls close on election night.

    In some places, where mail-in voting is small, these votes are often never even counted.

    Here's a typical scenario:

    State of West Dakota counts all in-person ballots cast on election day (from polling stations). The count comes up:

    Dem -- 435,698
    GOP -- 578,230

    Now, they know they have 88,571 mail-in (or "absentee") ballots, in addition to these subtotals. But that total number added to the Dem would not give him the victory... so they don't even bother counting them. Only in the situation where the outcome could change (214,739 mail-ins outstanding, for instance) would they even bother to count them.

    But of course, your state may vary.


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