This has not been a good decade for voting rights. The US Supreme Court decision that gutted much of the enforcement power of the Voting Rights Act opened up a Pandora’s box of Republican energy to suppress voter registration and hinder people’s ability to get to the polls. It seems like each state with a Republican governor and legislature has raced to see how difficult they can make it for people of color and poor people to vote.
States have cut voting hours, days of early voting and polling places. They have limited the number of voting machines in high-population areas, leading to ridiculously long lines. They are allowing partisan “election monitors” to show up in the polling area to look for “mischief” among minority voters.
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There is also a push to make it harder and harder to register to vote. This hasn’t been a homegrown patchwork of efforts by the Republican governors and legislatures. In fact, the notorious American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has a task force that pushes sample legislation to impede certain voters from getting to the polls.
Before the Supreme Court altered the Voting Rights Act, the Department of Justice (DOJ) would have to approve election law changes in certain states before they were allowed to become law. Once the Supreme Court lifted that restriction, the DOJ has to take on the unconstitutionality of these laws through the federal courts – something that can take years of challenges and appeals while the elections they affect just keep being held.
There are now also partisan election monitors afoot, with a Tea Party-based organization called True the Vote, training volunteers to go into polling places and challenge voters’ registration. Wisconsin, who used to pride itself on voter turnout, now has passed a law allowing these election monitors to be within a yardstick of voters and poll workers. Rachel Maddow humorously showed, with one of her producers, just how “creepy” that can be.
Some Democrats and others have been working to challenge these new draconian voter restriction laws before elections, and have been raising money and volunteers to do a massive get-out-the-vote effort for future elections. However, they are missing an important potential strategy: voting by mail.
Three states, Oregon, Washington and Colorado, have already moved to all elections being done by mail. Oregon led the way, starting the process with Phil Keisling, Oregon’s secretary of state in the 1990s. I interviewed Mr. Keisling about Oregon’s breakthrough efforts and his work in advocating for more states to consider voting only by mail. Keisling has been frustrated that so much effort is being put into getting people to the polls, rather than allowing people to vote in the privacy of their homes.
In Oregon, the mail ballots are sent out to every registered voter 14-18 days before the election. Voters can mail in their ballots anytime after that or go to a ballot drop-off place until 8 PM on election day. Each county must have at least two drop sites for ballots, such as outdoor ballot boxes, or sites in libraries or city buildings. A county can choose to provide drop-off areas as soon as the ballots are mailed to the voters. Washington State and Colorado have adopted similar methods.
The all-mail voting has proven to be popular in Oregon, and participation is higher than in many polling place-based states. Even counties in red state Utah are experimenting with all-mail ballots. Based on all the voting horror stories we have witnessed over the past several decades, mail-in voting could lessen or eliminate many of the politically motived voter-access obstacles. In the 2012 national election, too many states had long lines that required the people in them to wait as much as eight hours or more. The get-out-the-vote organizers were telling the people in line that it was a civil rights stance and were helping the elderly and others with food and seats. President Obama, in his 2013 State of the Union speech lauded Desiline Victor, who, at 102 years old, stayed in a line for more than 6 hours to cast her vote.
It is shameful that people have to take a civil rights stance to get access to a voting place.
This is just one area where voting by mail would stop a lot of voter intimidation and harassment in its tracks. Long lines would be a thing of the past. All voters would have to do is fill out their ballot at their leisure, sign the outside of the envelope and drop it in a mailbox, post office or ballot drop before the end of election day.
Avoiding the Monitors
Based on the large amount of money that is being shoved into intimidation efforts like those of True the Vote, it could take years of work in state legislatures to try to keep partisan monitors out of the election cycle. If vote by mail were to become more universal, these groups would have no polling places in which to do their bullying.
• There has been an ongoing controversy over voting machines, punch cards, hanging chads and lack of a paper trail ever since the notorious 2000 Bush/Gore election. Replacing voting machines and attempting to make them hack-proof is also a worry in an electronic age when even using your credit card at a Target store is not safe. The Oregon ballots are straightforward and designed to be counted by a scanning machine with the original ballot being preserved. Universal voting by mail would eliminate expensive voting machines and the problems that have gone with them. There would also not be a lack of machines, so obvious in urban areas, which also leads to long lines.
• Not only have citizens who have voted for years been unable to register to vote due to the requirement of more and more identification, it has also been a problem for voters to have these same IDs at the polling place to vote. Voting by mail has the voter sign their registration to vote and then sign the vote by mail ballot on the outside of the envelope. The state workers then match the signature to the signature on the card. Ironically, this is a safer way to prevent the very small amount of people who ever try to cast a ballot with fake ID, because it is a lot easier to get a fake ID than it is to forge a signature while standing at a polling table.
• There have also been precincts that run out of ballots and have to take provisional ballots, which slows down the voting process. When voting by mail, everyone who is registered to vote automatically gets a ballot, and, if they don’t receive one or mess up the one that was sent to them, there is time to request another one from the state before the election.
• Fewer polling places and more isolated polling places have been a problem in areas where some local voting boards are trying to keep people of color and poor people from voting. People who do not have access to cars and reliable public transportation are put at a distinct disadvantage to get to the polls on time. The United State Postal Service has outlets in even the most rural and otherwise isolated areas, and voting by mail could eliminate much of this problem.
• One of the most drastic changes that has happened over the past few years has been the cutting of early voting days and hours that polls are open. This has caused problems for voters working standard hours to be able to make it to the polls. Voting by mail would allow workers to read up on the issues and candidates for several weeks before the election and drop their ballot off before or after working hours.
Keisling told me that voting by mail could “bypass so much of the debate” on voter suppression and intimidation, and polling stations are like “iceboxes compared to refrigerators” when talking about the security and ease of voting by mail.
He also points out how a large amount of public funding of elections could be saved, while reducing the absurdly long waits at the polls, in an article he wrote for Governing Magazine:
But better polling stations and shorter lines require more money. New voting machines alone would cost $4 billion; more well-trained poll workers, working more days, would cost millions. Well-heeled jurisdictions, likely with the fewest problems, might not blink at such costs. But why force them, along with thousands of cash-strapped local governments, from red-tinged rural communities to blue-dominated urban areas, to redirect scarce resources to improve the polling place experience, when a long-proven, far less costly alternative – voting by mail – is so close at hand?
Absentee ballots have coexisted with polling places for centuries; more than 30 million voters cast such ballots in 2012. Having all voters receive their ballots through the mail, while often derided as absentee voting on steroids, should be viewed instead through the lens of “universal ballot delivery.”
So the question might be: Why aren’t we moving toward voting by mail? There are many Republicans who have already worked hard at restricting the vote to smaller and smaller groups of people so it is not surprising to see them rejecting making the vote easier and more universal. But, according to Keisling, there is a surprising amount of tacit resistance among some of the Democratic establishment.
There are several organized efforts that are looking at vote by mail as an answer to the current mess of US elections. The main organized national effort is called the Voting Rights Project, and they discuss vote by mail as one of their ultimate goals.
However, according to Keisling, there are some Democrats and academics who are concerned about security of the ballot and the loss of a “civic sense” of duty by going to a polling booth. Curtis Gans, from the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, American University, is worried that people will lose their privacy for how they vote and could be paid off or coerced to vote for someone else. He wrote in the May 2006 American Prospect (subscription required):
Mail voting and no-excuse absentee voting are the single greatest invitation to fraud and abuse of any aspect of the voting process. They have that dubious honor because they effectively eliminate the universal secret ballot and replace it with a voluntary secret ballot – a ballot that will be secret only if the citizen who possesses it wills it to be secret.
Any citizen in Oregon or who requests a no-excuse absentee ballot can feel free to share it with anyone of their choosing. This, in turn, has led or can lead to:
- Sharing that ballot with someone who will pay money to see that it is filled out a certain way and then returned in its security envelope to the appropriate place; or buying votes, something that led an election to be declared void in a part of Illinois.
- Sharing that ballot with one’s peers and friends in a living room ballot-signing party for a particular cause or point of view – a pressured ballot, pressure that could easily be resisted behind a closed voting place curtain but would be hard to resist among one’s friends and associates.
- Giving the ballot to someone other than the voter to deliver or mail – which can lead to that deliverer discarding the ballots if he has reason to believe they were not cast the way which the deliverer wanted it to be. This is a particular danger in group settings such as retirement communities or nursing homes, where infirm citizens may either be pressured to cast their ballots a certain way or who may be grateful for assistance in delivering ballots, not knowing that they may not reach their destination.
Phil Keisling, who has been working with other skeptical vote-by-mail progressives, says that if they truly believe that many peoples’ votes can be coerced, then you should not allow absentee ballots, which have the same alleged vulnerability. He said:
Name one example of a husband or wife accused (much less convicted) of “ballot coercion” during the 2012 election, among all of the Oregon and Washington voters who case ballots in this system (and the other 26 million who did so via absentee ballots in the other 48 states). And even if, there were one – or twelve – examples, what would we do? To hear opponents say it, we’d need to then abolish all absentee ballots, period.
I have to agree with him because most of our overseas military vote by absentee ballot. Based on what I know about the military, that bureaucracy would, if they thought they could be successful, pressure their troops to vote for someone who would endlessly raise the military budget. But those troops mark their absentee ballot in their barracks or homes, and the peer or military pressure, I believe, would be greater if we set up polling places on bases with soldiers standing in line and surrounded by officers as they vote.
Based on how complicated it would be to conspire to pay people to mark their ballots by mail or collect and/or coerce without people talking and finding out, I cannot imagine altering thousands or even hundreds of mail in ballots to flip an election. I can imagine hundreds or thousands of people discouraged from casting their ballots with hundreds of people in line with hours of waiting or feeling coerced with unfriendly election monitors a yardstick away questioning your citizenship because you don’t look like them.
Some claim that there is the security issue of voting through the US Postal Service and your ballot getting lost. The Postal Service can lose items, but that bureaucracy does not have political skin in the game with ballots versus the local election boards, where the board majority is stocked with political appointees from the majority party in the precinct. I can imagine that my ballot would be safer in the hands of the postal service person, who takes them out of the mailbox with all the other mail, versus the election workers, who are overseen by a political local election board. Also, if someone has a concern about the postal service, they also have the option of taking their ballot directly to a voter ballot drop-off that is under the same precinct control that you would have if you were voting in a precinct.
Keisling was instrumental, as Oregon’s secretary of state, in setting up the logistics of voting by mail. He says that all systems, the older traditional system and a vote-by-mail system will have vulnerabilities or problems. However, he believes that it is easier to oversee and safeguard the ballot in a vote-by-mail system where ballots go by mail to central locations where the signature on the outside of the ballot is compared to the voter registration signature. He thinks that precinct voting has its own vulnerabilities:
Across thousands of separate precinct sites, the odds of inconsistently applying elections rules – making mistakes, inadvertently disenfranchising people, etc. – is far greater when ballots are processed. In vote by mail, where all signatures are checked and voter information is verified in central locations, there are fewer mistakes and problems, not more.
According to Keisling, this romanticizing of the tradition and civic cohesion of the public polling place is more widespread than many politicians are willing to admit. The arguments remind me of the gauzy reminiscence of Norman Rockwell’s early paintings of a homogeneous white America coming together to vote. In fact Rockwell did a painting called Election 1944 that looks like what many Republicans and some Democrats still see as the America they would like to remember and emulate.
The late columnist Carl Rowan didn’t see vote by mail that way. He saw it as liberating people who don’t look like the people in this Rockwell painting. After the first large-scale, vote-by-mail Oregon vote, he mocked the people who decried the loss of the sacred polling place in a February 11, 1996 column (subscription required):
We’re told that it allowed all people to vote without expending the small amount of energy and sacrifice of going to a neighborhood polling place, undermining the notion that “the vote is a precious thing.”
This is swallowed by some as the sentimentality of patriotism, but it is, in fact, undemocratic gibberish that ought not override the fact that the Oregon election lifted the percentage of voters to about 65 percent of those eligible, a figure that made democratic participation almost as high as in European countries. It saved Oregon about $1 million. And it produced results that any Republican could applaud.
So we are to deplore this election as a violation of what “the framers” intended? I remember that the framers counted black citizens as three-fifths of a vote. And women as zero percent of a vote. Naturally, neither I nor my wife is much impressed by a reminder of what the framers believed about the semi-slave status of African-American males, or women.
The framers created a situation under which many states could decree that only the propertied could vote. When that idea and “poll tax” requirements were beaten down, polling places were located where millions of poor, ill minority citizens could not get to because they lacked transportation or couldn’t leave their jobs.
Voting by mail is a way for our democracy to advance, widen the voting population, and make sure everyone who is registered receives a ballot and an easier way to cast that ballot without lines, humiliation and the prospect of losing work. All systems are going to be vulnerable, and there are going to be problems arising in any system of voting. There will be people who will try to game vote by mail, just like they are now gaming the precinct elections. As with any governmental process, it will be important to fix problems or mistakes as they pop up.
But we know about the problems in the precincts – statistics show that actual voting fraud in very small but the manipulation of the ability to vote has been greatly twisted to benefit a shrinking status quo. We know about the lines, the lack of voter machines, the partisan election monitors who can challenge people that they don’t think look like Americans in the precinct system. If voting by mail is truly evil for democracy, then we need to start pulling back the efforts to expand the absentee ballot if you are going to be consistent in the argument that any vote by mail is dangerous.
Implementing the Vote By Mail Solution
Just saying that we all should embrace vote by mail and assuming both political parties will accept it in every state is wishful thinking. However, there is a way to advance the ability to vote by mail down the road, through the longstanding tradition of the absentee ballot. Many states make people have an excuse to be able to use an absentee ballot, but more and more states are moving to no-excuse absentee ballots.
Although my state, California, doesn’t look like it will move soon to all vote by mail (all the candidates for secretary of state have declared they are against it), California not only has a no-excuse absentee ballot, but you can request that you permanently receive an absentee ballot for all elections. As more and more people get use to the convenience and privacy of casting their ballot that way, it can lead to the realization that voting by mail is what the public wants.
The bipartisan National Council of State Legislatures has a very useful interactive chart that shows what states have no-excuse absentee ballots and those who require an excuse to get an absentee ballot.
Looking at the chart, there are three states that do all voting by mail, 28 states that allow no-excuse absentee voting (some of these states allow vote by mail under certain circumstances) and 19 states that require an excuse to obtain an absentee ballot. Compared to the work it would take to negate so many of the restrictions that some of these states have put on voting at the polling booth, it would be much easier to work on getting the states with excuse-required absentee ballots to remove that provision and get the states that have a no-excuse absentee ballot to move to the permanent status option for an absentee ballot.
Some of the states that require an excuse for absentee ballots are purple or blue states like Massachusetts, New York, Delaware, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. These states should be open to allowing no-excuse absentee ballots. Meanwhile, get-out-the-vote efforts in all the states could be geared to encourage people to ask and vote by absentee ballot – just one step away from vote by mail.
As the emphasis in the next election is to get people to vote, it is apparent that it would be much easier to get people to ask for an absentee ballot and remind them to mail it in then to go out with cars to give rides to people to the polls when you can only offer them long lines and pushy poll watchers. As more and more people see the convenience of voting by absentee ballot, there may well be a push to make it a permanent status, and that, in turn, could lead to vote by mail as more people press for that option. Eventually, as more people get away from the old ideal of voting at a polling place, there will be a much more open mind about adopting voting by mail. This will mean that eventually many, if not most, of the states will be encouraging their voters to vote by sending out a ballot to each one of them, instead of discouraging the “wrong” voters to give up by using unfair laws that keep them home.
Based on what I have seen in the courts, especially on election finance laws and the gutting of the Voter Rights Act, I fear that if some of these states’ absurd and drastic election precinct laws are challenged in the courts, we might end up with the equivalent of a “Citizens United” ruling by this US Supreme Court on these junk laws put in to intimidate or deter voters out of their basic rights.
The gradual adoption of vote by mail, using the existing absentee ballot structure, may be the fastest and cheapest way to overcome this shameful chapter in our history, where state governments have actively tried to inhibit some of their citizens from voting, for political reasons. To get a universal right to vote, we need universal ballots sent out to the voters with a modern and realistic way to getting their ballots back to the government. The bugs in a vote-by-mail system can be worked out as the system is adopted across the country. Eventually, vote by mail could restore the balance.