Voting by Mail and the Next Election Meltdown
Polls released this week indicate that the November presidential election could be very close, much closer than previously expected. In most elections, the margin of victory is large enough to avoid questions about how the votes were cast and counted, but when elections are close and contested, things like how the voting machines function and what constitutes a valid ballot can become very significant. This election, more than one out of five votes will be cast by mail. If it’s close, the election could be contested like Gore-Bush in 2000, and arcane postal matters, like USPS postmark policies and service standards, could take center stage in a bitter fight to the finish. Read more. (And there’s more here.)
How Americans Voted in 2014
The growing popularity of postal voting
Method of Voting, 1996-2014
Method of Voting, 2000-2014
Voting by mail was once reserved for people who could not be present on election day, like travelers and members of the military stationed abroad, but now many states do not require an excuse for choosing to vote by mail, and a few states are actively encouraging voting by mail.
Voting by mail has grown exponentially over the past four decades. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 10 percent of all ballots cast in the 2000 presidential election were cast by mail. By 2012, the practice had nearly doubled, to 19 percent of voters. In the 2014 midterms, the Survey of the Performance of American Elections (SPAE) found that around a quarter of all voters voted by mail.
In 1972, only about 4 percent of ballots were cast by mail nationwide. The national average is now over 20 percent, and in some states the average is much higher. In the 2010 election in California, for example, almost half the ballots were cast by mail, as compared to about 18% in 1990. In Oregon, nearly all ballots are now mail-in.
Not all voters who receive their ballots in the mail return them that way. The SPAE estimates that in 2014 around 1 out of every 5 mail ballots nationwide were returned by hand to an official location, like an election office, drop box, or polling place on Election Day, and not mailed back to the election official. (Pew)
As the table and graph above show, voting by mail has increased from 7.8 percent of the total votes cast in 1996 to 20.9 percent in 2014. If the trend line continues, something like 22 percent of the votes cast in the 2016 presidential election will be by mail.
Absentee & Early Voting Across the Country
In one way or another, every state allows voting by mail.
Absentee Voting: All states will mail an absentee ballot to voters who request one. In 20 states, an excuse is required, while 27 states and the District of Columbia permit any qualified voter to vote absentee without offering an excuse. Some states offer voters the opportunity to join a permanent absentee ballot list.
Early Voting: In 37 states (including 3 that mail ballots to all voters) and the District of Columbia, any qualified voter may cast a ballot in person during a designated period prior to Election Day. No excuse or justification is required.
Mail Voting: Three states mail ballots to all eligible voters for every election. Other states may provide this option for some types of elections.
(Click on the map to go to interactive version. Source: National Conference of State Legislatures)
Why Postal Voting?
It is more convenient.
It is more accessible.
Older voters, individuals with disabilities, and others who find traveling to a polling place or standing for extended periods to be challenging, are more impacted by long voting lines and more likely to use early or absentee voting.
Skip the lines.
More than 5 million voters waited for more than an hour to cast a ballot in 2012. Long lines arise disproportionately in urban areas and have a greater impact on minority citizens. Allowing people to vote by mail also relieves congestion at polling places.
Creates a paper trail.
Unlike electronic voting, with postal voting, paper ballots are available should a hand recount become necessary.
Reduces polling place intimidation.
Many states have laws that make voting difficult, like requiring certain types of identification. It's easier to address such problems when people vote by mail.
Eliminates confusion about where to vote.
Voters are often frustrated to learn that the polling station where they've voted for years has been moved to another location, and it's sometimes not clear where.
Calmer, more informed voters.
More accurate voter rolls.
Mailed ballots are not forwarded by the post office, and the constant updating of voter rolls provided by returned ballots makes for more accurate voter rolls without the risk of partisan purges.
Vote-by-mail eliminates the expensive and time-consuming recruitment and training of poll workers. Vote-by-mail eliminates the expensive and time-consuming recruitment and training of poll workers. All mail elections cost a third to one half of the cost of polling place elections
Increases voter turnout.
While voter turnout is influenced by many factors, industry studies have shown that voting by mail increases the number of votes cast, especially by expanding participation in special local elections.
Concerns and Criticisms
Absentee ballots are not secret ballots.
Ballots are not controlled entirely by the county and citizen poll workers
Lost in the mail
Compared with traditional and early voting, absentee voting results in more lost votes
Vote By Mail is vulnerable to fraud, such as voting for another voter without their approval.
Voting early means less informed voters, and often events occur after a vote is cast that would have affected the voter.
The voting process goes on for weeks and can cost more.
Research indicates that expanding convenience voting does not increase voter turnout.
American Law Institute issues report on Early & Absentee Voting and Resolution of a Disputed Presidential ElectionNovember 3, 2016
Ohio Secretary of State blames Postal Service for absentee ballot problemNovember 3, 2016
USA Today: Better hope the election’s not closeNovember 1, 2016
Voting Early, and in Droves: Nearly 22 Million Ballots Are Already InOctober 31, 2016
1,500 absentee ballot requests found in Rock Island, IL post officeOctober 31, 2016
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About Voting By Mail
Votingbymail.com is administered and edited by Steve Hutkins, a professor at the Gallatin School of New York University. The site is intended to serve as a clearinghouse and opinion venue on postal voting in all of its forms — traditional absentee voting, no-excuse and permanent absentee voting, all-mail elections, voting from overseas, and so on — as well as other topics related to elections and the mail. Votingbymail.com is an offshoot of Savethepostoffice.com, which, since 2011, has focused on post office closure, the sale of historic post offices, and other postal issues.