Last month, the state of Ohio postponed its presidential primary, a last-minute decision that led to statewide confusion and growing national concerns about future primaries and how they will be managed during the next few months. Had Ohio been one of a handful of states with universal voting by mail, it would not have been necessary to postpone the primary.
The need for social distancing to stem a global pandemic makes the idea of millions of Americans standing in crowded lines at polling stations a very scary prospect, not to mention the possibility of voter participation rates plummeting thanks to the fear of contagion.
Mail-in ballots make perfect sense given the pandemic, but long before anyone ever heard of the Coronavirus there were strong arguments in favor of voting by mail.
One obvious benefit is fiscal. Universal voting by mail can save the states and taxpayers millions of dollars per-election cycle by cutting the costs of staffing and equipping polling places. Another plus: mail-in ballots leave a clear paper trail for every vote cast, greatly reducing the risk of online election tampering.
Voter participation rates in states with universal voting by mail tend to be higher than average, and the evidence suggests that turnout gains are even greater among youthful voters, the least likely demographic group to show up on Election Day.
Nevertheless, the practice has been controversial, and even some advocates of political reform and voting rights have been less than enthusiastic. Critics say universal voting by mail might increase the problem of voter fraud.
So far there is no evidence that mail in ballots substantially increase the likelihood of fraud in the states that have tried it. And it all but eliminates the growing problem of voter suppression. With mail-in ballots, partisan election officials are unable to discourage certain groups from voting through restrictive or unfair ID laws or by manipulating the number of early voting days and polling locations.
But the original push for voting by mail did not come from political reform groups or voting rights advocates. It was county voting officials and secretaries of states looking to save money and promote good government efficiencies. In 1995, a bipartisan group of county clerks and legislators promoted a bill to enable the practice in Oregon.
The bill appeared to be on the way to passage when the governor surprised supporters by vetoing it. Three years later, Oregon voters passed a ballot initiative to remove obstacles to voting by mail. Since then two other states have joined the cause, Washington and Colorado.
Both states have experienced benefits similar to those of Oregon—cost savings and higher than average voter turnouts. The improvement has been especially dramatic in off-year elections and primaries, where turnout levels are traditionally low. In 2014, for example, Oregon, Colorado and Washington were among the top five states in the nation when it came to rates of voter participation among 18-34-year-olds.
Of course, no political reform or election system is perfect. Universal voting by mail would mean the end of the grand old civic tradition of walking down to the neighborhood polling place to cast a vote. There are no more neighborly election workers to greet us with stickers that say: “I voted.”
But given the current need to avoid crowds, and the above-mentioned proven benefits, this may be a civic sacrifice worth making.