Pushing the Envelope

When his state holds its primaries later this month, Bill Bradbury will be in charge of the details. That's part of his role as secretary...
by | April 30, 2008

When his state holds its primaries later this month, Bill Bradbury will be in charge of the details. That's part of his role as secretary of state, a job that's become a source of high anxiety for election officials almost everywhere. But Bradbury isn't expecting a stressful time. He's not fretting over the security of voting machines. He isn't concerned about hiring poll workers. In fact, he doesn't even care who votes on Election Day.

It's not because he's neglecting his duties. It's because Bradbury is running an election in Oregon, the only state in the country where all voting is by mail. Bradbury helped design the system, and he may be its biggest cheerleader. "It's really marvelous," he says. "We basically have avoided a lot of the controversy that has swirled around elections for the last eight years."

Oregon's experience has other states wondering whether they should try postal voting. But the truth is, many of them already are. While Oregon's system of voting exclusively by mail remains unique, obstacles to absentee voting are disappearing throughout the country. In many states, all you have to do is ask for an absentee ballot to get one. You don't need a reason. The result is that citizens are casting more of their ballots through the mailbox every year. Not too many people seem to have noticed, but the traditional precinct election, where everyone shows up on the appointed day, is in the process of decline.

The question now is whether the hybrid system most states use -- part mail-in, part face to face -- is a final destination or just an intermediate step. Increasing numbers of election officials are wondering whether their jobs would be simpler and their elections smoother if they just did what Oregon has done.

Ballots for Breakfast

Oregon has experimented with voting by mail for decades, but the actual switch to all mail happened relatively recently. A 1998 voter initiative approved the system, starting with the election of 2000. The state sends out ballots to every registered voter a couple of weeks before Election Day. Voters can return them by mail or bring them to government offices or special drop-off locations.

Data show that the system has boosted turnout, albeit only modestly. The effect is greatest for low-profile elections -- ones where most people would never have bothered to cast a ballot if it hadn't shown up in their mailbox.

Bradbury thinks the system leads to more informed voting. As in much of the West, ballots in Oregon tend to include long lists of citizen initiatives, referendums and constitutional amendments. "It is really great to give people the opportunity to have their ballot and have their breakfast at the same time," Bradbury says. "You have a lot of time to really mull over how you want to vote."

The benefits of convenience have been part of the national debate over vote-by-mail for years. But now the debate seems to be turning on a different issue: the possibility that mail-in elections are easier to manage and less prone to error or fraud. In this election cycle, Ohio, California, Colorado and New Jersey all have deliberated over whether electronic voting machines should be decertified for security reasons.

In Oregon, that's not a problem. The state uses optical scanning machines, but only after the ballots have arrived in the mail. When recounts are necessary, the state can always go back and look at the paper that voters submitted.

Then there's the poll-worker question. Marion County, Indiana -- where Indianapolis is located -- recently had to cut its number of voting locations in half. Part of the reason was that poll workers were getting harder and harder to find. Nationally, the average poll worker is 72 years old. Almost everywhere, governments are struggling to find a new generation of one-day election employees. Like Marion County, many places are reducing voting locations as a result. In Oregon, there are no poll workers needed because there are no polling places at all.

No Excuses

Given the arguments in favor, it's perhaps surprising that more places aren't trying an exclusive vote-by-mail system. To be sure, interest is increasing. Most counties in Washington State now vote entirely by mail. Most of Montana's largest cities have adopted the system for municipal elections. Still, the pace of change is slow, with interest from county clerks generally outpacing the willingness of state lawmakers to make the leap.

Part of the reason for the lack of urgency is that, in most states, anyone who wants to can already vote through the mail. More than half of the states now allow "no excuse" absentee voting, with no explanation needed to receive a mail ballot. In the past eight years, nearly a dozen states have switched to this system. California and Colorado have passed laws allowing voters to choose to become "permanent absentees," so that they receive a ballot by mail each time without having to ask at all. That's a dramatic change from a few decades ago, when getting an absentee ballot not only required an explanation but often required a notary public to confirm that the ballot had been cast without coercion.

Add up all these changes, and you begin to notice that the phrase "Election Day" is gradually losing its meaning. Between 1980 and 2004, the percentage of voters casting absentee ballots in the United States more than tripled. In the 2004 general election, more than 20 percent of the ballots were cast early or absentee, a record that seems certain to be broken this year. This past February in California, in a primary that included voting for president, 42 percent of ballots came in through the mail. "I believe in precinct voting," says Steve Weir, the clerk of Contra Costa County, one of the state's largest jurisdictions. "But I'm telling you that my customers want vote-by-mail and I want to be accommodating."

These developments haven't occurred without criticism. The biggest concern is mischief. John Fortier, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, points out that voting by mail can violate one of the most sacrosanct principles of American democracy: the secret ballot. "When the ballot leaves the polling place," he declares, "it is not private." He raises the possibility of some troubling scenarios, such as an overbearing parent or spouse dictating the vote of a family member. Mail balloting also could -- bizarre as it may sound -- increase the risk of illegal vote-buying. Unlike in polling-place elections, the vote-buyer can look at the ballot in the envelope and verify that he got his money's worth.

Still, officials in Oregon and Washington say they have substantial protections in place -- protections that don't often exist in absentee voting elsewhere. Both states have signatures for every registered voter on file. They check each signature against the one that appears on the ballot, using staff trained to match up handwriting. Both states have avoided major fraud incidents.

Half and Half

But there's a bigger question in all this. If a pure vote-by-mail system is less fraud-prone than a combination of mail and precinct voting, why would any state continue to run hybrid elections? Why not just vote exclusively by mail?

A switch to pure postal voting would almost certainly make life easier for the people who run elections. Sam Reed, Washington's secretary of state, argues that the burden of hybrid voting was one cause of his state's chaotic 2004 election for governor, in which uncounted ballots were discovered weeks after the election. Contra Costa's Steve Weir echoes those concerns, noting that he still has to find a full complement of poll workers, even if half his voters cast ballots through the mail. "That hybrid combination is the worst possible situation to be in," he says. "You're running a full vote-by-mail election and a full precinct election."

It is the worst, perhaps, for an election administrator. The voter's view is usually different. As much as exclusive mail-in balloting has been heralded as a force for convenience, the truth is that a hybrid system is more convenient still. Voters can cast ballots almost any way they like: They can vote early through the mail, vote early in person, or do it the old-fashioned way, at a polling place on Election Day.

Denver's city clerk, Stephanie O'Malley, was one of the few local election officials who spoke up early this year against a statewide proposal to shift to all-mail voting. O'Malley says she feared some voters who weren't studious about updating their addresses would be disenfranchised. She also notes that in 2004, when Denver voters had the choice of no-excuse absentee voting, 73 percent still showed up at a polling place. "The question," O'Malley says, "was whether everyone should be forced to vote by mail. Everyone should not be beholden to that particular model."

How long the hybrid system will remain dominant in Colorado, or anywhere else, is anyone's guess. In Oregon, a hybrid similar to Colorado's led gradually to a declining use of polling places and eventually to all mail. "It really doesn't make sense," says Secretary of State Bradbury, "to spend all the time and all the money to have polling places for a smaller and smaller group of people."

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