Voting by mail the best option to cure sluggish voter turnout
Last week’s midterm elections saw a historic level of voter turnout. With an estimated 113 million Americans casting a ballot, it was the highest midterm voter turnout in 50 years, 113 million may sound like a lot — but in the scheme of things, the United States still lags far behind other developed nations. In analyzing the 2016 presidential election, in which 138 million people voted, . When looking at countries like Belgium and Sweden, both with voter turnouts north of 80 percent, the U.S.’s 55 percent seems especially troubling.
Perhaps Americans are less interested in politics than Swedes — or perhaps the issue is structural. To put it bluntly, our system is not set up to make voting easy. Most obvious are the overt efforts at disenfranchisement: frequent attempts to reduce voter turnout among minority groups with restrictive voter ID laws, voter roll purges and . But even the simple fact that election day is on a weekday — a vestige from a time when — speaks to the low emphasis placed on making voting as accessible and convenient as possible.
Over the years, numerous methods to increase voter turnout have been floated. Making election day a federal holiday is routinely proposed. However, private employers are not legally required to recognize federal holidays, making this an imperfect solution. On the most extreme side of the spectrum, some countries like Australia and Brazil have mandatory voting, imposing fines on those who don’t cast their ballots. But given the U.S.’s general wariness surrounding government reach, mandatory voting is approximately as likely as a ban on Big Gulps.
A less drastic way to ensure everyone has a chance to have their voice heard is a system already implemented in certain states: universal vote by mail elections. It’s an elegant solution — rather than having voters go to a physical polling place, a ballot is automatically mailed to every voter. Recipients then have multiple weeks to fill out their ballots and either drop them off at designated sites or mail them back free of charge.
Thanks to federalism, we can already see the effects of this system in the few states that have adopted it. In Oregon, Washington and Colorado, the results speak for themselves. Turnout rates in these three states increased after the new system was established and are “now among the highest in the country” per a . The Post additionally found that turnout was especially boosted among young people, a demographic traditionally difficult to get to polling booths. Likewise, analyzed the few states with universal mail voting and found that “if other states adopted universal vote by mail, they could increase their registered voter turnout in midterm elections by 10 to 15 percent. Even more dramatically, they could double or triple their primary election turnout.” In one particularly stunning example, when Garden County, Nebraska switched to universal vote by mail for its 2018 primary elections, it resulted in a voter turnout rate over twice that of surrounding counties, .
Universal vote by mail isn’t about arbitrarily increasing a percentage — there are numerous real-world benefits to the system. For one, it could decrease political polarization. In a of partisanship and voter turnout, vote by mail’s “biggest turnout boosts were toward the middle of the spectrum.” When voting is an onerous process, more motivated partisan voters are disproportionately represented, an effect that is especially relevant in primaries. This leads to more polarized candidates, and encourages incumbents to cater to their most extreme constituents. Increasing the voices of moderates and less frequent voters would be healthy for our political system.
Even more importantly, vote by mail subverts the many efforts of the Republican party to reduce the voter turnout of marginalized groups and low income voters. There has been endless controversy surrounding these attempts, which range from strategically shutting down polling places so voters have to travel longer distances, to passing stringent voter ID laws. During During these past midterms, even early voting came under fire: 20 percent of early voting stations in North Carolina were closed in a move that disproportionately affected African Americans, . These anti-democratic efforts are troublingly effective when most elections rely on the traditional polling place. But vote by mail neatly bypasses these issues; pointed out, "You don’t need a voter ID to fill out a ballot at your own kitchen table."
As if all this wasn’t enough, universal vote by mail is much cheaper than traditional voting. of Colorado’s transition to the vote by mail system found that “counties spent an average of $9.56 per vote in 2014, down from $15.96 in 2008,” in large part due to discarding the need for rental and staffing costs of traditional polling locations.
Some believe vote by mail increases the risk of voter fraud, but these fears are abstract enough that they do not outweigh the many benefits of the system. While researchers disagree as to whether or not vote by mail marginally increases the risk for fraud, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Election Lab reports that “as with all forms of voter fraud, documented instances of fraud related to VBM are rare.” Since 2000, Oregon has had about 100 million mailed in ballots, and has had just a dozen cases of voter fraud, .
Any sort of transition to new methods of voting will be slow; it is to be expected that leaders elected under one system will be reluctant to take the gamble of expanding their constituencies. But if you believe that greater voter participation leads to a stronger democracy, and that voting should be a painless and straightforward process, the choice is clear: On election day, we should all stay home.