Voting by Mail in Colorado, Oregon and Washington
An under noticed reform that may be changing the future of how we vote
Imagine a new voter walking for the first time into their polling location – hopefully the right one – nervous about lines, their ID and the check in. They then face the bigger challenge of entering the booth and seeing the ballot for the first time. Whether paper or electronic, ballot designs vary and not always obvious to new voters how to mark. Having arrived with a candidate in mind, the voter sees a list of other races and ballot measures. Alone in the booth, will they get it right?
But good for them for showing up. Many more potential voters just stay away. While some say they’re “too busy” to vote, too often it’s really for lack of knowledge of what’s on the ballot and the fear of embarrassment or failing a test. Even experienced voters have challenges with more races and issues than anticipated once behind the curtain.
Now imagine you receive your ballot at home two weeks before the election. You have time on your own schedule to get help from friends and family or go online to learn about candidates and ballot measures. Then you have the choice of either mailing your ballot in or dropping it off at a nearby ballot drop box location at your own convenience. Sound good?
What about that civic tradition of traveling to your poll and sharing the experience with others? Today the majority of Americans cast their ballots early, absentee or don’t vote at all. I enjoy my poll’s bake sale, but am I anti-social to be less enamored by the rest – or intrigued by another way of voting and celebrating democracy?
Whether raising turnout or creating more informed voters, the benefits of vote by mail (VBM) states are under noticed and, in many respects, misunderstood.
The idea is still new. Following pilot efforts, Oregon started in 2000, Washington in 2011 and Colorado in 2013. Early evidence points to a positive impact on voter participation and other key benefits as well. But before getting into its impact, let’s start by looking at some common questions.
Is it the same as absentee voting?
No. Absentee voting is an option for voters who are out of town on Election Day, have a disability or just prefer to vote before by mail. To get an absentee ballot, a registered voter must apply and typically re-apply every year, and they must be qualified under a state’s law – and these vary widely – to receive such a ballot. (Voters in some states must even sign a legal document attesting to their likely inability to get to the polls on Election Day.) With VBM all registered voters are mailed their ballot in advance. When the voter changes their address and notifies the postal service, election officials can even automatically update the voter’s registration.
What does Vote by Mail try to do?
It has several goals related to participation, education, convenience and cost. But looked at for now just in terms of raising voter turnout, VBM is intended to increase turnout of active registered voters, not to solve voter registration issues. The states are working separately on improving registration as well. Each enacted online voter registration. This year Oregon implemented Automatic Voter Registration at DMV locations. Colorado has adopted Election Day registration. VBM’s turnout impact can be even greater in local or primary elections where the biggest issue is that even the vast majority of active registered voters don’t vote.
Is there a bias towards older and higher income voters who move less and use mail more? It’s a good question and skeptics have wondered about it. So far there is no evidence of that. In fact, initial studies show young and diverse voters participate at equal or higher rates in VBM states. The VBM states make concerted efforts to get ballots to those who miss theirs in the mail or register late, as well as easy to return. This is an essential part of its success.
What about studies that contend mail voting doesn’t help turnout?
These studies have almost all been about absentee voting, not VBM. Many exclude Oregon or Washington ,and/or don’t include Colorado, which only began VBM in 2014. These studies are also notable for how often they use different methodologies and measurements.
Does it diminish the secret ballot?
Some have worried some people may be coerced by partners to vote a certain way. It’s possible but that behavior is likely to impact polling place voting as well. It’s more common that people benefit from talking about their choices. In any case, it has not emerged as an issue anecdotally or in survey research.
Does it force everyone to use the post office and vote by mail?
While most call it Vote by Mail, not really On the ballot delivery side in Colorado, 64% reported dropping theirs off at ballot drop off location. Of those, 78% reported the site was not more than 10 minutes from where they lived. Colorado further provided Election Day polls in high density neighborhoods where mail may be less reliable. On the receiving side, if a voter does not receive their ballot (and most do) the voter can pick one up at convenient location.
Impact and Results
The news so far is good. Let’s look.
Higher voter turnout
All three states have seen turnout benefits. In 2014 Colorado (72 percent) and Oregon (71 percent) led the nation in voter turnout of active registered voters – both states 20+ points above the national average of 48%. Washington was one of the nation’s few states to lack either a gubernatorial or U.S. Senate election in 2014 — but with VBM still ranked 14th in the country and beat the national average. A more telling 2013 study of Washington was done by a team led by renowned researcher Alan Gerber. They found its adoption of all VBM increased turnout in all types of elections by an aggregate two to four percent. For truer measurement, the study used actual voting and registration data from the state voter file data, not exit polls or surveys.
Higher turnout for “lower propensity voters” as well.
The Washington study further found: The reform increased turnout more for lower-participating registrants (younger and lower income) than for frequent voters”, suggesting that all-mail voting reduces turnout disparities between these groups”. A similar study in Oregon of the 2014 midterm, also using voter file data, found similar results. Turnout of 18-34 year old voters was double that of other states in survey. Turnout among another low propensity turnout group, Latino voters, found the same results. Separately a study at Rutgers University of disability voters also saw turnout 14 points higher in the VBM states.
A post-election study in Colorado documented a saving of six dollars for every ballot cast in 2014 compared to 2008 – or 12 million dollars overall . Oregon has reported saving 3 million dollars per election cycle even with higher printing costs.
Use of provisional ballots went down
In Colorado, Vote by Mail combined with Election Day registration saw the cost and disenfranchisement associated with provisional ballots disappear. It reported the use of provisional ballots dropped 98 percent – from 39,361 provisional ballots in the 2010, to just 981.
The line at the drop box or mail box is you and whoever’s along for the ride. And this is important for many voters with family and work commitments. What’s more it avoids the possibility of election officials inadvertently or intentionally creating long lines by reducing or mis-siting poll locations.
Less problems with Voter IDs
Since voter’s credentials are validated at the registration phase, photo or additional ID when voting is not needed. The voter’s identity is validated by the ballot they cast and their signature on it.
Secretaries of State, Republican and Democratic alike, stand by the integrity of all mail elections and no problems of any consequence have surfaced.
Popular with voters
After debuting in Oregon, a survey showed 81% of respondents favored the vote-by-mail system with 19% preferring voting at the polls. It had high favorability across party lines. Almost a third of respondents said they voted more often since vote-by-mail was enacted. In its first year, 95% of Colorado voters were equally happy voting by mail or, for a smaller group, voting in person at polling centers. In Washington its overwhelming popularity in its pilot phase led to its statewide adoption.
Won’t we miss the ritual of make the trip to a fixed poll? For some yes, but it’s a ritual far too few eligible voters now do. It’s time to take the advice from Fiddler on the Roof’s Tevye that traditions have their place but not all are meant to endure. Old traditions can be replaced with new ones. It’s wonderful to celebrate Election Day but moving forward there’s many ways to do that and more reason to innovate.
For now the hope is more states will take a close look and pick up on what these three states have done. Populous states should look closely at Colorado’s multi-faceted approach combining Vote by Mail with some polling centers on Election Day and same day registration to ensure all eligible voters can fix registration problems and have their ballot cast and counted.
The value of Vote by Mail lies in getting registered voters connected to their ballot before the rush of Election Day. Having time to look at your ballot and consider your choices. The payoff for representative democracy is making it easier for more registered and better informed voters to vote and more elections. And the benefits voters themselves gain for being voters and active citizens.
Gerber it all, Identifying the Effect of All Mail Elections on Turnout, Political Science Research and Methods, June 2013
Keisling, P, Vote from Home, Save Your Country, Washington Monthly, Jan-Feb 2016
Keisling, The Measure – and Mismeasurement – of Universal Vote by Mail, Washington Monthly, Jan-Feb 2016
The Pew Charitable Trusts, Colorado Voting Reforms: Early Results, March 2016