The Joy of Voting by Mail

If you forget to mail in your ballot, well, you can drop it off and save the postage. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

California’s top-two primary, which will choose candidates regardless of party for the November election, is approaching on June 5. But like a growing majority of Golden State voters, my wife and I will vote by mail well before what is technically Election Day (ballots must be postmarked by June 5 and received by county election officials three days later or less, though ballots can also be dropped off at precincts or “voting centers”). Because we are registered as permanent vote-by-mail voters, we get ballots automatically as long as we keep eschewing the increasingly less crowded Election Day polling places.

So this weekend, Dawn and I plan to sit down with our mail ballots and our handy-dandy state and county voter guides. Those reflect a wonderful California institution that provides every voter with detailed explanations of, and pro-and-con advocacy statements concerning, every state and local ballot initiative (a Golden State institution dating back to the Progressive Era, though today’s special-interest-financed initiatives are frequently everything other than progressive) along with declarations from every candidate coherent enough to complete a sentence. We will have the leisure to make our way through the incredibly extensive list of statewide candidates facilitated by California’s “jungle” nonpartisan top-two primary (in which all candidates from every party compete for a general election spot offered to the top two finishers, regardless of party or percentage of the vote). That means there are 32 U.S. Senate candidates and 27 gubernatorial candidates on the June 5 ballot. It’s really not something you want to first encounter alone, in a voting booth.

As Dave Roberts, a distinguished environmental writer who is a resident of all-voting-by-mail Oregon (a system also embraced by Colorado and Washington) notes, voting by mail ought to be strongly considered as the wave of the future nationally. It has raised voter turnout every place it’s been used. It’s cheaper than voting systems that rely on polling places and polling workers. It is attractive to all sorts of voters — particularly people who may not find it easy to take off work to stand in line during working hours on a random Tuesday — who value convenience. Indeed, there’s not much of a downside for abandoning the old system, argues Roberts:

Most of the time, for most people, voting in the U.S. is a big bunch of bullshit hassle. It’s been made a hassle on purpose — and not for all people equally, but, like so many things, disproportionately for the poor, minorities, young people, and students.

Just the idea that in 2018, people have to schlep down to a gym or something between particular hours on a particular weekday and stand in line for hours to poke at choices on a touchscreen, all while being monitored by creepy onlookers … it’s an insult to modernity, all of it. We can do better.

Voting on something other than Election Day is a more familiar experience than ever in a country where early voting — in some places in-person early voting at traditional polling places — is growing as fast as hostile Republican election officials will allow. So voting-by-mail mostly violates increasingly archaic taboos, which mostly upsets political consultants who realize get-out-the-vote and persuasion strategies focused on Election Day only aren’t very efficient any more.

Some critics think voting-by-mail facilitates voter fraud. As Roberts responds, that makes little sense:

[A]bout a quarter of all votes were cast by mail in 2016. Absentee ballots have long been available in dozens of states. Since 2000, overall, about a quarter-billion votes have been cast by mail. Thus far, there have been virtually no documented incidents of coercion or abuse. As NVHC notes in a white paper on this subject, “Oregon has mailed-out more than 100 million ballots since 2000, with about a dozen cases of proven fraud.” That’s a 0.00000012 percent rate of fraud.

That’s attributable to a combination of felony charges for voting-by-mail tampering, and the difficultly involved in rigging so decentralized a voting system. It’s surely a safer system than using voting machines that are inevitably vulnerable to hacking by Russians or God knows who.

It’s something for election reformers — especially progressive election reformers — to think about seriously, if not this year (where it’s largely too late to change anything) then before the crucial 2020 election that will determine control not only of the White House and Congress, but of the state governments that will dictate the next decennial round of redistricting. Voting-by-mail has a lot to recommend itself, and few downsides. I am very pleased I have the opportunity to use it myself.

The Joy of Voting by Mail