For many Americans, participating in November’s election was a simple matter of showing up at their polling places, waiting a few minutes, and casting their votes. For others, it required patience, proper identification, and even courage.
“What we’ve learned in literally 20 years of voting by mail in Oregon is this works.”
In Kansas City, Missouri, some voters waited for more than three hours to cast their ballots. In Durham, North Carolina, long lines and malfunctioning voting machines forced officials to extend polling place hours. In Austin, Texas, poll workers reportedly told voters they could not vote without IDs—despite a July ruling by a federal appeals court judge allowing voters without photo IDs to cast ballots.
None of these obstacles affected me or my neighbors in Seattle. I voted two weeks before Election Day from my kitchen table, with a cup of coffee in hand and my laptop at the ready to research the many down-ballot candidates and initiatives. When I finished filling in the bubbles, I sealed my ballot in an envelope and dropped it in a collection box at the library. I was able to vote from home because Washington is one of three states, along with Oregon and Colorado, that uses vote by mail for every election.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden wants to extend that policy to the whole country. The Oregon Democrat’s National Vote By Mail Act would require states to mail every voter their ballot at least two weeks before the election, and then collect them via prepaid envelopes or official drop boxes. It would also create an automatic voter registration system through the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Though the impact of vote by mail is mostly about convenience in the blue states where it’s currently used, the effects could be transformative in states like North Carolina and Wisconsin, where voter suppression laws have proliferated since Shelby County v. Holder, when the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act. If passed, Wyden’s law could bring millions of disenfranchised people—mostly people of color and poor people—back into the system.
“We’ve got a proven track record.”
“What we’ve learned in literally 20 years of voting by mail in Oregon is this works,” Wyden says. “It empowers voters. They like the fact that they have a little more time to consider their choices. They don’t have to take a day off to go vote. It’s less expensive than the alternative.”
Wyden first introduced the bill in July, but it never made it out of committee. He intends to reintroduce the bill this year. The Republican-controlled Congress is unlikely to pass it, but Wyden sees value in keeping the conversation alive.
“Obviously, some people might want to look at this through a party filter,” he says. “[But] citizens have been saying that we want approaches in government where there’s a proven track record. This is one where we can stand up and say we’ve got a proven track record.”
A cure for voter suppression?
According the Brennan Center for Justice, a research and advocacy nonprofit, 21 states have enacted more restrictive voting laws in recent years, while eight have reduced early-voting opportunities. The laws disproportionately affect people of color and low-income people, sometimes intentionally so. In a decision striking down North Carolina voter ID requirements, a federal appeals court judge wrote that “the new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
Allegra Chapman, director of voting and elections at the nonprofit Common Cause, says voter restrictions had a measurable impact in 2016.
“Just look at Wisconsin,” Chapman says. “It had a strict photo ID law for the first time. … Three hundred thousand Wisconsin voters did not have the ID or access to the ID they needed to vote.” Donald Trump won that state by fewer than 30,000 votes.
ID laws aren’t the only form of voter suppression.
Of course, ID laws aren’t the only form of voter suppression. Many people can’t afford to spend hours in line and away from work on a Tuesday, and long lines disproportionately affect people of color. The Brennan Center found that Hispanic voters were six times more likely than Whites to report waiting more than 30 minutes to vote, while African Americans were four times more likely.
“It will obviously help address those issues because there will no longer be long lines at polling stations if folks receive their ballot at home,” says Eric Richardson, president of the Eugene, Oregon, chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which supports Wyden’s bill.
Wyden’s spokesman Keith Chu says the bill doesn’t directly address voter ID laws. But it does include language specifying that “If an individual in a State is eligible to cast a vote in an election for Federal office, the State may not impose any additional conditions or requirements on the eligibility of the individual to cast the vote in such election by mail.”
Chapman doesn’t see vote by mail as panacea for America’s increasingly restrictive voting laws, but supports Wyden’s bill as a piece of the solution.
For most people it is easier to fill out a ballot from home and drop it in the mail.
“Vote by mail is the sort of thing we think should be put in place alongside a host of other reforms,” she says. “When there’s a big package deal that meets voters where they are, that’s where you’re going to see voter turnout improve.”
Chapman points to the bipartisan package the Colorado Legislature passed in 2013. In addition to establishing vote by mail, it allowed voters to register on Election Day and created voter centers at which people can register, update their information, drop off their ballots, or vote in person. She also points to the success of automatic voter registration in Oregon, where anyone who had business with the Department of Motor Vehicles last year was automatically registered to vote. According to The New York Times, 225,000 Oregonians were newly registered through the DMV in 2016, and 43 percent of those new voters cast ballots in November.
“A small but measurable impact”
Oregon was the first state to move to all-mail voting in 2000, with Washington and Colorado following behind. Some California counties will move to all-mail voting in 2018. Nebraska legislators are considering vote by mail as well.
According to former Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, the switch to vote by mail in the general election had a small but measurable impact on turnout. “Oregon already had a pretty high voter turnout,” he says. “From our analysis … enacting vote by mail increased voter turnout by about 2 percent.” That would be about 30,000 additional voters each year, on average.
Supporters of vote by mail attribute that boost in part to convenience. Certainly for most people it is easier to fill out a ballot from home and drop it in the mail instead of going to a polling place on a weekday.
At a glance, vote-by-mail states certainly seem to turn out more people than most. According to voting statistics expert Dr. Michael McDonald’s United States Election Project, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington each had 2016 turnouts well above the national average of 60 percent.
Supporters say that vote by mail also saves money.
But critics dispute the link between those high numbers and vote by mail. “In high-profile elections … people who are going to vote are going to vote,” says Steve Huefner, a law professor at Ohio State University. “And they’ll do that whether it’s voting by mail from their kitchen table or going to the polling place on the designated Election Day.”
He points to studies showing that the switch to vote by mail has a low impact on presidential elections while delivering “some marginal increase in turnout in off-year elections or smaller local elections.”
A study conducted at Reed College in 2012 found similar results. Oregon’s vote-by-mail program likely only increased turnout in “subfederal contests, precisely where voter interest is lowest.”
Meanwhile, supporters say that vote by mail also saves money. A study published in 2011 found that vote by mail would cost Colorado 19 percent less than traditional voting. The savings mostly come from the reduced need for election judges and temporary staff at polling places.
Though just three states use vote by mail for federal elections, 19 others allow it for some elections, such as special elections, local races, and ballot measures.
The danger of vote buying?
One of the most common criticisms of vote by mail is that it does away with the protections provided by polling places. Because mailed ballots aren’t secret, critics say, the policy opens elections up to fraud and coercion.
In thinking about the potential shortcomings of voting by mail, Huefner says because the vote is out in the open, “maybe there’s some subtle kind of intimidation that occurs among some families, some households.”
He can see how vote by mail at its most problematic could help facilitate vote selling.
Huefner says he can see how vote by mail at its most problematic could help facilitate vote selling. “When we moved to secret balloting, it functionally made it impossible to bribe someone to vote a particular way, because you couldn’t confirm how a person voted. But with vote by mail, it’s easy to confirm,” he explains. He acknowledges, however, that there’s no evidence of this actually happening.
Bradbury, the former Oregon secretary of state, says vote by mail is actually better suited to counteract fraud than traditional voting. “It’s a very secure system because they check every person’s signature against that person’s voter registration signature before that ballot is counted.”
Though he supports Wyden’s vote-by-mail plan, the NAACP’s Richardson thinks it’ll take work to make it a success.
“As a nation, we are still grappling with the issue of race and trust,” he says. “I think in the South, especially, the issue of trust between races is something we’d have to address, so people will feel like a vote-by-mail system will be transparent and everyone will have their votes counted,” he explains.
It could be a while before the country gets a chance to experiment with a national vote-by-mail system, however.
With a Republican-controlled Congress calling the shots and Republican-controlled states trending toward placing more restrictions on who can vote, Wyden’s bill faces a steep uphill battle this year.
But the senator is hoping his colleagues will listen to common sense. “I’m going to say, ‘Let’s come up with something that’s fair to everyone.’ Working people, people of color, young people. Why should Americans go to absurd lengths to exercise their constitutional rights? It seems to me that this is something that allows everybody to win.”
Josh Cohen is a freelance reporter in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s written for The Guardian, The Nation, CityLab, Next City, Crosscut and others.