Mailing It In

When between 45 and 50 percent of registered voters cast ballots in Washington state last Tuesday, the Seattle Times described turnout as "meager."
by | November 13, 2007
 

When between 45 and 50 percent of registered voters cast ballots in Washington state last Tuesday, the Seattle Times described turnout as "meager." This would be news to Kentucky, Mississippi and Virginia.

In Kentucky, which had the governor's race and other statewide offices on the ballot, only 37 percent of registered voters showed up. In Mississippi, which elected a governor, other statewide positions and the legislature, turnout barely surpassed 40 percent. Virginia cast votes for its entire legislature, but turnout only exceeded 45 percent in one of 40 state Senate districts.

Washingtonians weren't picking a governor, or statewide officeholders or legislators. They only voted on ballot measures (albeit high-profile ones) and local officials. One explanation for the higher turnout (and higher turnout expectations) in Washington: The state now mostly votes by mail.

Statewide turnout on Tuesday in Oregon, the first state to mail a ballot to every registered voter, was 59 percent, even though ballot measures were the main event. A couple of days before election day, when it looked like only about half of Oregon's registered voters would cast ballots, the media described turnout as "anemic."

Turnout dynamics are different in every state, of course, which is why Montana's experience last week is telling. Some jurisdictions in Montana, such as Helena, voted by mail for the first time, while others, such as Great Falls, stuck with traditional polling places. In Helena, 61.5 percent of registered voters cast ballots, compared to only 28 percent in Great Falls.

So, there's a pretty good case to be made that voting by mail boosts turnout. Mail-in voting may have other benefits too.

Under the Help American Vote Act, governments are spending a lot of money to make their polling places handicapped-accessible. That's not a problem, if you use the postal system. Debates over voting machine technology? Gone. Trouble recruiting poll workers? Solved.

Nonetheless, voting by mail is controversial. The postal system is far from fraud-proof or error-proof. Skeptics worry that voters who make their choices at home will face pressure from family members looking over their shoulders, undermining the concept of secret ballots.

Of course, if there were a voting method that wouldn't stir controversy, we'd have already found it.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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