Why Hasn't Voting by Mail Spread?

Voting by mail is popular in the states that allow it. But some states are hesitant to make such a switch.
by | March 2011
 

A change that simultaneously increases voter participation, saves millions of dollars and makes the postal service relevant again would seem to be what public finances and America’s civic health need. But when it comes to voting by mail, even with a decade-long track record, states seem to be saying, "Not so fast."

In January, Montana decided not to join the exclusive club of vote-by-mail states. A plan to make the switch died early in the legislative session when 15 House members reversed their votes and killed the bill.

The promise of saving $2 million each election cycle by eliminating polling places and poll workers -- while also enhancing voter protection and participation -- could not overcome a flurry of last-minute calls from constituents expressing to legislators their concerns about security.

The Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University reports that 37 states allow some form of convenience balloting (no-excuse absentee and early voting), including 13 that allow all-mail voting under certain limited circumstances. Only Oregon and Washington are so-called universal vote-by-mail states, conducting elections entirely by post.

So why aren’t more states adopting all-mail voting? Little research exists about the merits of universal vote-by-mail, especially about the links, if any, between voting method and voter participation.

"The paucity of research is frustrating and even a little suspicious," says Phil Keisling, director of the Center for Public Service at Portland State University’s Mark O. Hatfield School of Government. During his tenure as Oregon’s secretary of state in the late 1990s, Keisling ushered in vote-by-mail through a successful ballot initiative.

Keisling decided to take a second look at available voter turnout data. According to the United States Elections Project at George Mason University, voter participation in Washington and Oregon ranks near or at the top among eligible voters and registered voters.

Keisling contends that universal vote-by-mail is demonstrably the most effective means of ballot delivery because it unites the voter with the ballot. He argues that vote-by-mail’s track record suggests security concerns are largely misplaced because any mischief is limited to single votes and caught through signature checks. And by definition, he says, vote-by-mail leaves a paper trail in case of a recount.

Political reversals, such as the one in Montana, were common during the 15-year campaign for vote-by-mail in Oregon. Keisling says legislative majorities and sitting governors flipped from support to opposition, forcing it to the ballot for resolution by voters themselves. The reason? Keisling says it comes down to political cowardice and calculation -- "craven fear of politicians that has been demonstrated on both sides of the aisle that this is bad for their side."

Keisling does not discount the cultural resistance to vote-by-mail rooted in the civic ritual of visiting a polling place in late autumn. His own initial opposition to vote-by-mail hinged on the prospect of losing a long cherished tradition until he realized that "voters will create new civic rituals. Besides, they like vote-by-mail."

Historian, economist and demographer Neal Howe says there exists a generational overlay to voting habits and traditions. He agrees with Keisling that Millennials, those born from the mid-1970s to 2000, share a fondness for voting as a civic ritual with the generation that came of age in the 1930s and 1940s. "Millennials have marked a resurgence in what had been declining voting rates."

Howe says convenience voting fits the preferences of the two generations in between. "Boomers and Xers totally want to unplug from voting as a social activity. They don’t have time for it; they don’t want to participate in institutional ceremony [and] are comfortable with a trend that says make it efficient and make it fast." Ironically fast voting remains on the slow track.

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