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Voting by mail is fair, safe, and easy. Why don’t more states use it?

Snail mail is well-tested technology.

postal carrier (Shutterstock)

Earlier this week, Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep Earl Blumenauer, both Democrats from Oregon, introduced a bill that would expand their state’s vote-by-mail system to the entire country.

It’s not a new notion. Wyden has been pushing versions of the bill since 2010. But given the events of the past year — Trump’s narrow electoral-college victory, accusations of voter fraud, voter-suppression laws in various states — it is more relevant than ever. Its Senate co-sponsor list has grown to 19 and now includes leftie stalwarts like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

The bill has little chance of passage — one of the core truths of US politics is that anything that increases voting turnout hurts Republicans, so they inevitably oppose it. But at the very least it ought to kick up a national conversation about America’s abysmal voting system and one dead-simple way to fix it.

US voting is an embarrassing mess

I spent the run-up to the 2016 election reading about people taking advantage of early voting, which is supposed to be more convenient than voting on Voting Day. Unfortunately, in the US, that’s a pretty low bar.

I read about people like Cynthia Perez, who stood in the hot Arizona sun for three hours to vote in Maricopa County, Arizona — the county that contains Phoenix, the state’s most populous city. Officials recently cut the number of polling places in that county by 70 percent.

Bill Jones, a 69-year-old African American, stood in line for two hours to vote in Charlotte, North Carolina, eager to cast an early vote in a state where Republican officials have worked tirelessly to restrict voting, especially among minorities.

Amanda Stephens tried two separate polling places in Corpus Christi, Texas, hoping to vote early on her lunch break. One said the wait would be two and a half hours. The other said three hours. She gave up.

In Washington, D.C., Ian Watlington, who has cerebral palsy, was forced to navigate his wheelchair up a steep ramp and over gaps in the concrete to reach a difficult-to-operate door — all to get inside a polling place.

In Nevada:

Put aside the deliberate attempts to make voting harder — hassles with ID, understaffed or eliminated polling places, purges of voter rolls, and the other horror stories covered so well in Ari Berman’s recent book Give Us the Ballot.

Beyond all that, it is simply absurd that voting in America means taking time off of work on a particular day or set of days, schlepping to a specific building, standing in long lines, and registering your voting preferences in person, with a physical mark.

We know how to register people’s preferences remotely! We’ve had remote-preference-registering technologies for centuries now. They work pretty well.

Take the US postal system.

Voting by mail is humane and civilized

I live in Washington, one of three US states (Oregon and Colorado are the others) that does all its voting by mail.

Here’s how voting went for me. I got my ballot in the mail several weeks before the election. One night the following week, after dinner, my family gathered around the dining room table. On one side, we had our ballots. On the other, we had Washington state’s official voter guide, along with several informal voting guides from some of our favorite publications and people.

We went through the ballot vote by vote — president, governor, on down to ballot initiatives on carbon taxes and public transit — discussing the opposing arguments, allowing the boys (11 and 13) to ask questions. Overall, it took about an hour. When we were done, we put our ballots in a special envelope, affixed stamps, and dropped them in the mailbox. That’s it.

We did this at our leisure, not during proscribed hours. We weren’t subject to the vagaries of weather or the idiosyncrasies of polling staff. We didn’t have to show any ID or wait in any lines. We had plenty of time to research and mull over each vote.

It felt deliberative, civilized, like the way human beings ought to vote.

The advantages of universal voting by mail (UVBM) are legion. This long piece on the subject by Phil Keisling, the former Oregon secretary of state who introduced the system, lays out the case in detail.

States save millions of dollars because they don’t need to establish polling places or pay polling staff (one reason Montana counties were desperate for vote by mail, though Republicans in the state legislature ended up rejecting it). Voter turnout is higher, especially among younger, older, poorer, and minority voters.

There’s no need to run two separate election processes, one for in-person votes and another for mail-in absentee votes. Voter rolls are much easier to maintain and verify. Every vote leaves a paper trail. There are no issues with forms of ID, difficulties with access, or opportunities for voter intimidation.

And there have never been any proven cases, or even serious allegations, of substantial voter fraud in UVBM states, mainly because the system renders it almost impossible. Keisling summarizes the security case:

Mail-based voting systems today are far less risky than most polling place elections, precisely because they distribute ballots (and electoral risk) in such a decentralized way. To have any reasonable chance of success, an organized effort to defraud a mail-based system and its safeguards must involve hundreds (if not thousands) of separate acts, all of them individual felonies, that must both occur and go undetected to have any chance of success.

Contrast that to the risks inherent in polling place elections that increasingly rely on direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting systems and proprietary software systems that both record and tally votes. A single successful software hack potentially could affect thousands of votes. It’s the difference between "retail" fraud and "wholesale" fraud.

Voting by mail is inherently more resistant to wholesale voter fraud.

Universal vote by mail has not caught on

As this piece in Governing magazine covers, UVBM has had trouble spreading elsewhere, despite its unblemished track record. Some 22 states have limited forms of vote-by-mail, for certain voters and in certain elections, but it is universal only in three. (UVBM legislation failed in Montana in 2011 and again this year.)

Voters remain nervous about security. (Hacking seems remote, somehow, but the idea of someone coming into their kitchen and forcing them to mark a ballot a particular way, despite being absurd and never actually happening, haunts them.) And of course the Republican Party remains staunchly opposed to UVBM, just as Republicans are opposed to all voting reforms that make voting easier or increase turnout.

It adds up to a difficult political hill to climb. But still. It’s crazy. No one should have to take time off work, stand in line, or search for particular polling places to vote, not when more secure and accessible alternatives are available.

The many-faceted horror of Donald Trump seems to have stirred progressives to life and opened up novel political possibilities. One thing Democrats ought to do in response to this trauma is emphasize that, even if we can’t seem to get anything else right, we can get voting right. It’s easy.

Postal mail works. We should use it to vote.

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