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Beyond Groupthink: the Real Way to Reform Voting

A presidential commission's recommendations focus largely on improving the polling-place experience. But why do we even need polling places? Let's let everyone vote by mail.

In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus publicly declared that the earth revolved around the sun, not the other way around. Generations of renowned scientists had long resorted to ever-more elaborate celestial explanations -- "epicycles" "equants," "deferents" -- to reconcile contrary data with their geocentric beliefs. Copernicus was upending 1,500 years of scientific groupthink, and he was widely condemned as a heretic.

This dynamic comes to mind in reading the well-written and constructive report issued in January by the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration. Fully implemented, the commission's recommendations would certainly reduce lines and produce better polling places. However, we should collectively lament this Copernican moment not taken and the choice to embrace orthodoxy rather than break out of our polling-place-centric view of the electoral universe.

Co-chaired by the chief lawyers for the 2012 Romney and Obama presidential campaigns, the commission included elections officials and private-sector customer-service experts. Its 112-page report reflected six months of public hearings and a comprehensive survey of thousands of local elections administrators.

Among its key recommendations: expanded online voter registration and early voting; better records-matching with DMV databases along with interstate collaboration to improve voter-registration accuracy; increased use of school buildings for polling places; replacing thousands of aging electronic voting machines; advance distribution of sample ballots; more bilingual poll workers; and -- one of my favorites -- employing the "insights of queuing theory concerning the flow of voters."

During the 2012 election, an estimated 10 million voters spent at least 30 minutes -- and some of them many hours -- waiting in line. Amidst contentious partisan accusations about "voter fraud" and "voter suppression," perhaps we can't expect more than a catalog of small to mid-sized fixes to build a better polling place.

However, the core problem with America's election system - or, more accurately, with its 8,000 separately administered election systems - isn't too-long lines or poorly run polling stations. The real problem is our insistence on polling stations, period, and the small-ball assumption that voting lines can only be shortened -- rather than abolished entirely.

As the authors correctly note in their preface, "election administration must be viewed as a subject of sound public administration." In this vein, it's useful to view voting as a series of discreet steps and processes:

• 1: Registering to vote

• 2: Connecting the voter with the ballot

• 3: Filling out the ballot

• 4: Casting the ballot

• 5: Counting the ballot (including recounts in close races)

Every local government's election system -- the best, the good and the awful -- involves these five steps. The choices made by election administrators, based on laws enacted and budget dollars appropriated, determine the quality, integrity, cost and "customer experience" of their voting systems at each of these stages.

Online registration and interstate collaboration to ensure more-accurate voter rolls -- such as Pew's innovative Election Registration Information Center initiative - would improve the speed and accuracy of step 1. Heading off an "impending crisis" of aging electronic voting machines would help steps 3, 4 and even 5. The vast majority of the commission's recommendations involve step 2 -- reducing the time and hassle for polling-place voters.

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 re-direct 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 co-existed 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." Three states have fully embraced this framework: Oregon (since 2000); Washington (since 2010) and Colorado (starting in 2014).

Universal ballot delivery fundamentally upends the election-administration universe. In 47 states, governments require registered voters to seek out their ballots, either by going to a polling place (refurbished or not) or by applying for an absentee ballot. Meanwhile, America's three "voter-centric" states require the government to mail ballots to all registered voters.

Fundamentally changing step 2 in this way also improves step 3, giving unhurried voters time to fill out their ballots, usually in their own homes, with ready access to additional information. Voters can then choose how to return their ballots (step 4). While most Oregonians use postage stamps, about 20 percent return their ballots in person to hundreds of official collection sites (libraries, police stations and other government offices).

By eliminating polling places and the need for so many election-day workers, Oregon taxpayers save millions of dollars each election cycle. Ballot processing and verification procedures -- checking all signatures against voter registration records, which also renders moot the whole photo-ID debate -- can be more uniformly applied than at the precinct-by-precinct level. Recounts (step 5) are based on individual paper ballots, not software code.

Creating such a voter-centric election system also significantly increases voter turnout, especially in elections where the absence of lines is the real problem. In the 2010 mid-term elections, Oregon and Washington ranked first and second in percentage of registered voters casting ballots. (Across all 50 states, the same turnout rates would have meant about 25 million more votes cast.) More dramatic still, party-primary turnout rates of 40 percent or higher in states with universal ballot delivery are double, even quadruple, the rates in most states.

It took another century (and the invention of telescopes) to validate Copernicus' revolutionary views about the solar system. Hopefully, America's voting revolution won't take anywhere near that long.

A Senior Fellow the Center for Public Service at Portland State University's Hatfield School of Government
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