By Lisa Rampton Halverson, MWEG Education Limb Director
The election of 1864 was held in the midst of civil war — a national crisis of a magnitude our country had never seen before and has not seen since. One German-born commentator was shocked when the nation went ahead with elections. But Abraham Lincoln knew that if they allowed the flames of the Civil War to engulf the elections of 1864, the very republic he fought to preserve would also risk ruin. He said, “We cannot have free Government without elections, and if the rebellion could force us to forego or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us” (Nov. 10, 1864).
Today our nation faces another crisis in the coronavirus pandemic. With expanding social distancing recommendations and timelines, 12 states have already postponed their scheduled primaries. We must begin today to ensure that alternate means are made available for both primary and national elections in 2020: We should not be required to stand in long lines, enter possibly infected voter booths, or put polling officials in harm’s way to cast our vote.
One of the most oft-discussed alternatives is a method known as voting by mail (VBM, also called vote at home), wherein voters receive their ballots by mail, which they can mail in, drop off at secure drop boxes, and even submit in person on voting day. Since the coronavirus outbreak, three states — Alaska, Wyoming, and Hawaii — have already changed their primaries to be entirely VBM. This post will discuss some of the advantages and disadvantages of VBM.
According to supporters, VBM creates greater voter convenience and satisfaction. More importantly, VBM can bolster the security of elections, improve voter engagement, and reduce election-related costs.
Voters can take all the time they wish to research issues on their ballots. In Oregon, for example, a state with an all-mail voting system, 87% of those surveyed had a very or somewhat positive impression of the system. Of course, in the days of coronavirus, “greater health safety” could be included alongside convenience and satisfaction.
Good VBM programs institute multiple layers of checks and balances to ensure the integrity of elections. These include:
(1) Risk-limiting audits, which allow elections officials to double check the vote count.
(2) Tracking services that follow individual ballots as they are processed through the mail system, both outbound to voters and as the ballots are returned, and
(3) Signature verification processes, wherein election officials compare the voter’s signature on the return envelope with the signature on the voter’s registration card.
These protections help “voters realize that their mailed-in ballots were not only being counted, but being confirmed as their own.” There have been no substantial instances of voter fraud or ballot theft in any of the states that have converted to all-mail voting.
Some sources make opposite claims. For example, a ProPublica article writes: "There is bipartisan consensus that mail-in ballots are the form of voting most vulnerable to fraud. A 2005 commission led by President Jimmy Carter and James A. Baker III — George W. Bush’s secretary of state — concluded that these ballots ‘remain the largest source of potential voter fraud.’" A quote from 15 years ago is not great evidence for the systems in place today, however. The nonpartisan digital news organization The Fulcrum rebuts 10 oft-spread myths, unfounded fears, and outright falsehoods about VBM here.
VBM methods improve voter engagement. Turnout in VBM states outperformed states with traditional poll-based voting by 15.5 percentage points. According to NonProfitVote.org, three of the four VBM states — Colorado, Oregon, and Washington — ranked in the top seven of 2018 voter turnout. The other, Utah, where in 2014 the legislature successfully mandated that the practice be expanded statewide, went from 30 to 52% voter turnout, the highest growth over 2014 of any state (see also here). VBM also does not disenfranchise those whose jobs do not allow them to be present in person on election day.
There are expenses when changing to a new or additional method of voting. However, in the long run, VBM methods save money “because of the reduced need for equipment and poll workers in each precinct. Colorado, which has the nation’s most comprehensive vote-at-home system, showed a savings of more than $6 or 40 percent per voter, according to a study by The Pew Research Center” (source; see also here and here).” One factor that nudged Utah’s adoption of widespread VBM methods were the expenses to replace paperless, electronic voting machines that were costly, difficult to maintain, quickly outdated, and susceptible to hacking.
VBM has potential disadvantages too, including the loss of a civic tradition. Many of the disadvantages below can be addressed by thoughtful procedural choices but require forethought.
VBM increases printing costs and up-front costs of changing to different vote-counting equipment. States that chose to pay for return postage can also increase costs, though this removes a financial burden from voters. Over the long run, states save money that would be spent on voting machines and staffing in-person voting places.
Voters may mark more selections (an “overvote”) or mark less than allowed or nothing at all (an “undervote”). These errors are called “residual votes.” At in-person voting locations, the equipment will notify voters if this happens and allow the voter the opportunity to correct it; VBM does not have a way to inform voters of errors, so there tend to be more overvotes and undervotes. Damaged VBM ballots may also be harder to correct.
Certain populations may be adversely affected by VBM due to differences in mail delivery across the nation, lack of street addresses or shared P.O. boxes, frequent moves and the difficulty in keeping addresses current, and varied literacy levels. (Election materials are often written at a college level, though this issue exists at traditional polling place locations, too.)
Native Americans on reservations may encounter difficulties due to a widespread use of P.O. boxes instead of traditional addresses, more limited access to mail delivery, greater distances to travel to polling stations, and mistrust that their vote won’t be counted unless it is cast in person. One attempt to address the problem occurred when The Rural Utah Project joined with Google to create plus codes (shortened longitude and latitude coordinates that can be used as a home address) for Native voters in southern Utah. If other areas choose VBM, they too must address certain challenges for full enfranchisement in 2020 and beyond.
Finally, with primary elections already upon us and the general election only eight months away, states that move to VBM will be trying to enact a transition, which normally takes years, in a few short months. The diversity of election procedures across states makes this an intimidating change indeed.
The right to vote is enshrined in the Constitution, and we believe, as stated in MWEG’s Principles of Ethical Government, that “Citizens have a duty to participate in representative government by casting an informed vote and seeking to engage with elected officials” (PEG 3.b). Government institutions and officials have a duty to ensure the integrity and the safety of our elections, something that should not be a partisan issue.
We encourage all to take time to learn more about alternatives to traditional voting.