We should all be outraged at the long lines, long wait times, and voter suppression efforts so apparent in the November 2012 election. Democrats talk with bravura about how these efforts to suppress the vote “backfired,” arguing proudly, “We didn’t let the regressives intimidate us—we showed that we can wait in lines for hours.” But this is a mistake—many people cannot wait in long lines. They have child care issues, jobs they can’t miss, physical illness or disabilities that make standing in long lines impossible.
There is a proven, simple fix to the voting problems and the long waits in long lines that occurred in Florida and many other states: Congress should mandate and fund mail-in balloting in all Congressional elections.
Congress has the constitutional power to regulate the manner and times of voting for Congressional elections. That is how we got a uniform national Election Day starting in 1845, and the federal Motor Voter Act in 1993, which requires states to allow for registration when a qualifying voter applies for or renews a driver's license or applies for social services.
Most states, including Florida and Ohio, already allow mail-in balloting for absentee voters. Many states allow no-excuse voting by mail. But in most states, the onus is on the voter to request a mail in ballot. Two states, Oregon and Washington, have used statewide mail-in ballots sent to all voters for many election cycles. Not one significant problem has been identified since mail-in balloting was implemented.
People love voting by mail for many good reasons:
1. They can take the time to read over the ballot at home, or at a coffee shop.
2. They can do research on the web about candidates or ballot measures and study election materials and campaign literature as they fill in their ballots.
3. They can vote anytime they are ready in the three weeks before Election Day.
4. They do not have to drive or find a way to get to the polling place.
5. They do not need to stand in any lines.
6. They do not have to worry about missing work, covering child care or other obligations.
7. Physical disabilities are no longer an obstacle to any voter.
8. Every U.S. mailbox is a ballot drop-off box. People do not need to worry about which poll site to go to, or where the poll site is.
9. There is a paper trail because the mailed in ballot is hand-marked paper, but it is readable electronically by scanning machines.
10. If the ballots must be received by the voting offices by the end of Election Day, as in Oregon, the votes can be counted very quickly on Election Night. Most ballots are in hand and can be prepared for quick counting before Election Day. Washington State has a different deadline, in that ballots count if they are postmarked by Election Day, which results in hundreds of thousands of ballots arriving days later. The final count cannot be made until several days after Election Day. A better solution would be to have the postmark deadline be the Friday before the Election Day. Any ballot filled out after Friday can be dropped off at official ballot bins placed at each grocery store, school, and fire house. So long as the ballot is in an official ballot bin by the end of Election Day, it counts.
The technology is simple: paper ballots, envelopes, and mail boxes. The ballot itself is identical to the ones used at the polls: paper with oval boxes to color in with black or blue pen. As always, the ballot is anonymous, that is, it has no personal identifiers. Then the ballot is sealed by the voter into a “secrecy” envelope that has no personal identifiers. Then the secrecy envelope is placed into the mailing envelope, which has a signature line on the back. When the mailed in envelopes arrive at the election office, the clerks compare the signature on the envelope to the signature on the voter registration card. If the signatures match, the secrecy envelope is forward to the counting office, which opens the secrecy envelopes and runs the ballot through the counting machine. This is how most states already handle absentee ballots. No one can vote twice because voter names are matched to voter registration rolls.
Congress should mandate that every registered voter for a Congressional, Senatorial, or Presidential election be mailed a voting packet 21 days before Election Day. The voting packet will have the ballot, the secrecy envelope, and a postage pre paid mailing envelope in which the voter places the secrecy envelope after marking the ballot and sealing it in the secrecy envelope. The voting packet can also contain any state-mandated information about ballot measures or candidates.
This system has been used in all Oregon elections for twelve years, starting in 2000, for six straight general elections. Washington State made vote by mail optional for counties in state-wide elections in 1993. Almost all counties had started using this method by 2010. Then, in 2011, the Washington legislature made vote by mail mandatory statewide. Turnout in both states has averaged over 70% in non-Presidential general elections, and over 80% in Presidential years. The vote by mail system is very popular in both states.
President Obama mentioned the need to fix our voting system in his victory speech in the early morning hours of November 7. He and the Senate leadership should make this a priority once the new Congress is sworn in next year. If the House Republicans refuse to go along, their failure to adopt this simple fix should hurt them in the 2014 election.