By Michael Althouse
When people discuss Oregon’s vote by mail system, it is usually credited as a reason for a high voter turnout. Although Oregon has generally had higher voter turnouts than the rest of the nation since the passage of mandatory vote by mail, correlation does not necessarily equal causation. Recent studies have called into question whether vote by mail is responsible for the increased voter turnouts. If it turns out that vote by mail does little or nothing to increase voter turnout, what is the future of vote by mail? Are there any other benefits to having the good ol’ United States Post Office drop off your ballot?
The public perception that vote by mail results in higher voter turnout may be true, but it may be for reasons that are not immediately apparent. Rather than guaranteeing an automatic boost in voter turnout, it may serve to keep voter turnout stable when problems arise. For example, after hurricane Sandy hit the north east, many of the affected areas saw low voter turnout. The low turnout occurred in part because of the displacement, confusion, and other effects of the storm.
It is always difficult to speculate, but it seems reasonable to assume many of these problems would have been alleviated if the states had used an entirely vote by mail system. First, a number of voters would have already cast their ballots by the time the storm hit. This highlights the vote by mail advantage of spreading out the election process to encompass more than one day. Second, many voters were busy dealing with power outages, lack of heat, or other Sandy related problems. Voters may have had their cars destroyed, and those that did not may have wished to conserve their gas. A vote by mail system would likely help to solve many of these transportation related problems. As long as the United States Postal Service is able to deliver the mail, the election should remain relatively unaffected by problems such as lack of power, gasoline, and reduced voter access to transportation.
Unlike other “modern” solutions to the fragile election system such as e-voting or touchscreens, vote by mail ensures that there will be a paper trail. In an increasingly polarized political climate and post-Bush v. Gore, this advantage should not be understated. Having a paper trail would both make for more accurate recounts, and safeguard the electoral system from the kind of cyber attacks possible with digital technology.
While vote by mail may not result in more people registering to vote or more voter participation, it may help to ensure that voters who wish to cast their ballots are able to do so. By stretching out the election process to more than one day, vote by mail protects elections from the short-term effects of natural disasters and other unforeseen occurrences. Eliminating the need for voter transportation even ensures that on an individual level, a voter will not be prohibited from casting their ballot due to a flat tire or broken leg. Finally, in the event of a recount or fraud, vote by mail ensures there will always be a hard copy to fall back on.