In 1998 Oregon voted by a wide margin to expand its experimental vote-by-mail system to all primary and general elections in the state. Oregon was followed by Washington, which with the exception of a single county, has adopted a similar vote-by-mail system. The typical voting procedure in these states is that three weeks to a month before the election the state mails ballots to all registered voters who fill them out and have until the night of the election to return them via mail or by dropping them off at a county office. Now, in 2009, the model pioneered by the northwest is being tested in the east, as New Jersey is moving towards its own version of the vote-by-mail system. New Jersey has allowed voters to vote absentee without restriction since 2005, but the off-year elections in November 2009 were the first test of a new system that more fully embraced the vote-by-mail concept, by removing any pretense to the ballot being for absentee purposes. This system differs from that embraced by Oregon and Washington in that voting by mail is not mandatory, it’s just another option in addition to more traditional polling systems. New Jersey embraced the program for the same reason that states like Oregon and Washington did, in an attempt to boost voter participation by making voting more convenient. The New Jersey Secretary of State touts the new program as removing any excuse for Jerseyites not to vote, and Oregon boasts of an 86 percent voter turnout in the 2004 Presidential Election and a 70 percent turnout in the 2006 midterms.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the vote-by-mail model is truly successful in driving up voter participation. The change to New Jersey’s early voting law in 2009 was likely a response to the lack of success from its 2005 expanded absentee voter law. According to numbers tabulated by the New Jersey Secretary of State, in every statewide primary and general election from 2003 to the 2008 primaries, absentee voting never amounted to more than .05 percent of ballots cast. Even Oregon and Washington, the two states that have implemented mandatory vote-by-mail systems, the results may not be as remarkable as advertised. Continue reading