Vote by Mail Spreads, But Doesn’t Help All Voters

Some progressives overlook that voting by mail does not always help their longtime constituents.

As state and county officials look for ways to streamline elections during tough budgetary times, many jurisdictions are increasingly relying on mail-based voting—and winning praises from progressives for doing so.  But the true litmus test for any election reform should be whether it helps expand the franchise to those whose voices are missing in our democracy. What some groups may overlook in their enthusiasm about voting by mail is that it does not always serve underrepresented or vulnerable populations as well as traditional polls.

Just last week, Hawaii held an all mail-in vote for a special congressional election, and the Progressive States Center applauded the reform for resulting in higher turnout (54 percent of 317,000 mailed ballots were returned), and for costing less (about 75 percent of the cost of precinct-based systems). They also championed the administrative ease of the method, and how it helps counter negative campaigning (since it is costly to run negative ads over the three-week period that ballots could be returned).

And Hawaii is not alone.  Oregon has already instituted all-mail voting, as has most of Washington state. Most Californians (62 percent) voted by mail in the 2008 presidential election, though counties still offer precinct voting. Colorado had high mail-in voting rates in 2008 (64 percent), and the state is considering an all mail system.

The progressive impulse to embrace solution-oriented reforms is always laudable.  But, in elections, as in all else, the devil is in the details.  There are several layers of facts and fine print that we should heed before embracing any election reform.

First, studies show that voting by mail has not been a magnificent success among low-income communities of color (in inner cities and rural areas), because of higher mobility rates and poorer mail service among these populations, among other factors.

A recent academic study commissioned by the Pew Center on the States, one of the nation’s leading sponsors of election reform research and analysis, looked at the impact of adopting an all-mail system in California. The study—based on research conducted in 2009—concluded that a mandatory, all-mail system would negatively impact urban, low-income and communities of color.

The reports found that, when a mandatory vote-by-mail system is implemented, the estimated odds of an individual voter voting actually decreases by 13.2%. The report also found that the negative impact of being forced to vote-by-mail further is worse across certain populations, with the estimated odds of voting decreasing 50% for urban voters, 30.3% for Asian voters; and 27.3% for Hispanic voters.

There is no perfect election system, of course, but these findings suggest that additional steps must be taken by state and local election officials to ensure that the populations that traditionally are hardest to reach and engage are not left behind in a rush to mandatory mail-in voting.

For example, in Colorado, any voter who does not cast a ballot during one federal election cycle is listed as an "inactive voter." Under Colorado election laws, inactive voters are not mailed a ballot in an all-mail election, which obviously would disenfranchise many eligible voters—just because they did not vote in the last federal election. (Inactive voters in Oregon, Washington, and California also do not receive mail-in ballots—although California, unlike its neighbors, also has precinct-based voting in all counties.)

Other voters on Colorado’s inactive list include voters whose last piece of election mail was returned as undeliverable.  Relying on mail delivery to determine voting eligibility is a notoriously error-prone practice, guaranteed to disenfranchise eligible voters. Only about 90% of first-class mail is successfully delivered nationwide, meaning 10 percent of the eligible population could be disenfranchised. Poor mail delivery is particularly an issue in inner cities, but also on university campuses, Native American reservations, among young people, students and transient workers —basically anywhere there is a population that is more mobile than the suburbs. This kind of unintended consequence is critical in assessing the impact of all-mail elections, and must not be overlooked by state legislators who otherwise might see great savings in adopting a new voting process.

What is needed as states and counties eye reforms are pragmatic safeguards that will balance the ease of administering all-mail voting with serving all eligible voters.  That means election offices will need to increase communications with voters in their jurisdiction. It also means retaining voting centers, or perhaps consolidating precinct-based voting, but not eliminating it. It means working with the Postal Service to improve current address information to reduce returned mail—and undelivered ballots. Additionally, legislators should make voter registrations portable, so they can be moved between jurisdictions by election officials when a voter moves, enabling them to present identification to receive a regular ballot on Election Day.

Moreover, there is a potential for partisan abuses when political campaign workers assist voters, especially elderly, infirm, or housebound voters, to fill out any ballot, especially when completed ballots are collected en masse before submittal. Limits should be imposed, particularly on political party and political campaign workers, to prevent them from distributing and collecting mail-in ballots, to help prevent potential vote fraud, especially when dealing with infirm or housebound populations.

The message that election officials, legislators, and advocates need to heed on all-mail voting is that the reform is not a one-size-fits-all solution for streamlining Election Day.  Voting is a complex undertaking, and any reform must be scrutinized for all of its consequences—unintended and otherwise—not just bottom-line budgetary and administrative impacts.  The most challenging or mobile populations have always been the hardest to serve, but it is government’s job to reach them, not to sweep them aside in a rush for "progress."

Cross-posted at Project Vote's blog, Voting Matters

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