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The case for letting everyone vote by mail

The Washington Monthly in an article written by a former Secretary of State for Oregon, lays it out.

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Presidential elections still attract a majority of America’s voters. For all other elections, however, democracy is mostly a spectator sport. In the 2014 midterms, just 83 million registered voters cast ballots—a nosedive of almost 10 million from 2010’s already anemic levels. Almost 110 million registered voters were no-shows—for a registered voter turnout rate of just 44 percent. Add another 40 million eligible but unregistered citizens, and the rate was just 36 percent.

Turnout in primary nomination contests is even lower—for instance, just 18 percent of registered voters participated in the 2012 cycle. This is a major factor pulling both parties, but especially the GOP, to the extremes, and it should be especially worrisome to Republican and Democratic moderates and the 42 percent of Americans who now identify as “none of the above.” An estimated 90 percent of the nation’s 435 congressional seats and 7,383 state legislative seats are noncompetitive between the major parties. Win the dominant party primary, and the November election is a mere formality.

Fiscal conservatives, too, have reason to worry about low voter turnout, if for no other reason than the costs that taxpayers in many states are incurring to ameliorate it, such as keeping polls open longer. Voting as traditionally done—with 110,000 polling stations and 800,000 poll workers—is expensive. Just to upgrade or replace the hundreds of thousands of aging touchscreen voting machines could easily cost states and localities $2 billion in the next decade.

Low voter turnout, however, should really trouble progressives, because the voters who don’t show up at the polls (including the ones who vote in presidential years but not in off years) are disproportionately Democratic in their orientation and propensity.

Democrats and their progressive allies aren’t bereft of ideas to boost voter participation. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are both championing promising reforms, such as automatically registering all American citizens based on driver’s licenses or birth records. But no other solution holds anywhere near the potential to boost actual voter turnout. Evidence from Oregon, Colorado, and Washington suggests that if other states adopted universal vote by mail (UVBM), they could increase their registered voter turnout in midterm elections by 10 to 15 percent. Even more dramatically, they could double or triple their primary election turnout, which would almost certainly reduce the inordinate influence of take-no-prisoners ideologues. (See “Can Vote by Mail Reduce Partisan Extremism?”)

Universal vote by mail has many other virtues, too. Those odious photo ID laws? Rendered moot; you don’t need a voter ID to fill out a ballot at your own kitchen table. Long polling place lines? How about no lines, period—and no way for elected officials to manufacture them by (whoops!) providing too few polling places in certain neighborhoods?

Universal vote by mail has also proven to be at least as secure from fraud—and arguably more so—as traditional voting at polls. Election officials check each voter’s signature on the ballot return envelope, matching it against the voter registration card before the ballot is counted. (Since signatures can change, voters still have time to update their registration cards—and qualify their ballots—before results are officially certified.)

Universal vote by mail has the additional advantage of being less costly to taxpayers than the traditional method. Beginning in 2000, Oregon taxpayers started saving $3 million per election cycle. Or consider California’s San Diego County, where election officials found that in a 2013 special election for mayor the direct cost of operating their polling places—$360,000, for 32 percent of votes cast—far exceeded that of the “mailed out” portion—$84,000, for 68 percent of votes cast.

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Would expanding UVBM to other states help Democrats more than Republicans? The weight of the evidence certainly suggests so. But that Democratic advantage, such as it is, won’t necessarily last forever. Voter preferences change over time as generations age. A decade ago, for instance, older voters leaned Democratic, and as recently as the 1980s most younger voters supported the GOP.

Moreover, partisan advantage shouldn’t matter at all if UVBM will help democracy and give voters far more ability to cast an informed and considered ballot, on their schedules. How many of us, voting at a traditional polling place, have felt the pressure to rush through the process, picking candidates, especially down-ballot ones, almost at random? Voting by mail, at your kitchen or dining room table, is unhurried. You can use the Internet to learn more about candidates’ policy positions and views, or look for newspaper editorials. You can reach out to knowledgeable relatives, friends, and colleagues who might know more than you do about a particular race. The result is more considered and intelligent voting.

Universal vote by mail can also counter the outsized influence of extreme ideologues who thrive in the “micro-turnout” world of current party primary elections. Official voter statistics our PSU team has compiled from all fifty states’ primaries show that just 35 million voters cast primary ballots during the 2012 election cycle—while 155 million already-registered voters didn’t. That’s an overall registered voter turnout rate of 18 percent. Separate research involving complete voter files for fifteen 2014 primary states shows the median age of those voting at about sixty-two, compared to the median age of forty-six for registered voters in those states.

If 10 or 12 percent of registered voters in an average-turnout state choose to vote in the dominant party’s primary, the electoral math is pretty clear: win just 5 or 6 percent of your constituents’ votes in a competitive race, in the right primary, and you can pop the champagne corks. But when more than 50 percent of eligible Republicans and Democrats vote in primary elections—Oregon’s track record since 2000—each party’s more moderate voters have a far greater opportunity to be heard.

The main attraction for elected officials is that UVBM would save money. When you add in the fact that at some point every county in Texas is going to have to replace its increasingly old and outdated electronic voting machines, the case becomes clearer. Not that anyone expects this to happen in Texas, where the extremism is a feature and not a bug, but it’s worth pointing out and getting someone on board for filing a bill to this effect in 2017. Martin Longman has more.

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