Why the whole country should vote like us (by mail)

Contrary to what Fox News thinks, making it difficult to vote is no laughing matter. No one should have to wait in line for hours to vote, like the 102-year-old woman whom the president saluted.
Oregon was the first state to go to all-mail voting.

Oregon was the first state to go to all-mail voting. AlysssslA/Flickr

Washington state ballot (2010).

Washington state ballot (2010). Bob Simmons

Desiline Victor is a hero to me. She’s the 102-year-old woman to whom President Obama gave a shout-out in his State of the Union speech, the one who had to wait for hours under the Florida sun just to exercise her right to vote in the most recent election.

And yet, here’s the thing: I also wish I had never heard of her.

You see, there is absolutely no reason for Victor or any other American to wait as long as a minute to cast his or her vote. So we never should have had to hear her troubling— albeit deeply inspiring — story to begin with.

The immediate, complete and trustworthy fix to the problem of interminable voting lines, the way to banish all the waiting forever, is found right here in the Pacific Northwest. As the president prods Congress on this issue, we should speak up and tell the nation: No problem here. Solved it.

Oregon and Washington are the only two states to conduct elections entirely by mail, which means that no one has to worry about access to a voting booth. Our kitchen tables are our voting booths, and we can take as long as we like to fill out a ballot without worrying about holding up a huge line of frustrated fellow voters snaking out the door of our local polling place.

Just two states exceeded a 70 percent turnout in the 2010 mid-term elections (final figures for 2012 are not yet available for all states). Guess which ones? Yes! Oregon and Washington.

Oregon’s system is better than Washington’s, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. But I believe that both states are miles ahead of the rest of the country, and that is not a conclusion I reach lightly.

I was a deep skeptic when vote-by-mail started in Oregon 15 years ago, though not because I thought it would be ripe for fraud. (Predictions of wholesale vote-buying or other shenanigans have proven as far off the mark as fears that planeloads of “death tourists” would descend on Oregon when it passed its first-in-the-nation measure legalizing allowing physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill.) 

No, I was against the idea on, honestly, poetic grounds. I simply love the pageantry of voting. As a lifelong political junkie, all the voting on Election Day became more exciting to me than all the gift-giving on Christmas Day at an embarrassingly early age.

In an odd way, voting strikes me as a powerful civic inversion of the religious act of communion. At the Eucharist we receive a mystical piece of the whole; at election time, each of us offers our small crumb in the form of a single ballot, and from those a full loaf magically emerges. The People Speak.

Thus Oregon’s idea at first struck me as sacrilegious. Some sociologists wring their hands that too many Americans are "Bowling Alone"; I worried what it would mean when we all started Voting Alone.

But the truth is, going postal (in this case, anyway) yields a better way. I know because early in my career, I began needing to vote absentee: as a peripatetic reporter covering the news, I could simply never be sure that I’d actually be at home on Election Day —as opposed to, say, Ohio, where I found myself in 2004. The only way I could make sure my ballot counted was to cast it in advance.

I found that I considered both candidates and propositions far more carefully. I no longer had an excuse to shrug and tick off a down-ballot vote between two opponents I’d never heard of. I could take as long as I wanted to decide each and every item on the ballot. Yes, the process lost a bit of the Norman Rockwell appeal of a busy election day at the local polls, but it certainly resulted in a more informed decision on my part.


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Comments:

Posted Sun, Feb 17, 9:32 a.m. Inappropriate

With the recent voter ID law in Tennessee and other states, discussions have resumed about alternative voting ideas. One Democratic legislator introduced a bill to implement an Oregon style vote by mail--shot down by all the horror stories of cost and confusion that came from Oregon, things that I imagine I would have heard about during the time that I lived there.

But that raises the next question: why limit ourselves to snail mail? I've raised the idea of Internet voting with a few people and they recoiled with horror: won't the system be subject to tampering? I asked them if they have ever purchased an item online, conducted online banking, e-filed taxes, and so on: yes in all cases. As sacred as the democratic process may be, how many people will honestly say that they are more concerned about their vote being compromised than their bank account?

A more conspiratorial explanation often offered is that the red states generally go for voter ID laws and other inconveniences on the theory that Democratic voters are the ones most likely to give up. Admittedly, the comments from the wiseacres at Fox make it hard to avoid such a conclusion. But taking the reason for such laws at face value--that they are designed to prevent fraud--I find it very difficult to believe that a well-designed mail or e-voting system will have more fraud that the present system.

Posted Sun, Feb 17, 11:10 a.m. Inappropriate

My biggest concern about vote by mail is based on personal history. In the late 70s I was an observer in a precinct in Philadelphia. I represented an upstart congressional candidate (who's name I cannot recall - he was unmemorable) against the establishment candidate during the Abscam scandal. The fraud during the voting was memorable. I spent all day wrestling with the precinct officers who wanted to "help" little old ladies vote. They had been voting in that precinct for 30 years and didn't need this guy in the booth with them. It was a semi-controlled vote.

The history of voting in Philadelphia is pretty interesting, and it's not even close to Chicago or Texas. (Read about the 1948 Senate election in Robert Caro's biographies of Lyndon Johnson for great stories.) Small wads of cash would be handed out to the workers as "walking-around money." More was available if your precinct voted "correctly."

While this was painful and amazing to see, it was at least visible. By being an observer at the polling place I could ensure that everyone had their chance to go into the booth and pull the curtain closed behind them. They could vote secretly, despite whatever happened outside the polling place.

In vote by mail this just isn't true. It's easy to imagine one spouse filling out the form for another. While I have not ever seen this, it's easy to imagine group "events" for voting. "Let's all bring our ballots down to the church, union hall, workplace, etc. and fill them out together." You can imagine the implied coercion. There is no independent observer in this.

I could imagine a better functioning Internet-based system, where even if you were coerced into a vote you could "correct" it later, in private. My concern about the transparency of the system is pretty high though - it is very, very hard for independent observers to ensure that a software-based system works as described.

Paper ballots handed in or created in public venues, with secrecy provisions are antediluvian, but they remain the most transparent, re-countable system we have.

We may decide that the benefit of being able to fill the ballot out at leisure and do research on candidates while you are having your coffee trumps the benefit of the secret ballot, but we should be careful when we make decisions here.

Rep. Ross Hunter

Posted Sun, Feb 17, 1:30 p.m. Inappropriate

According to John Fund, who "wrote the book" on shady election practices (including the 2004 Washington governor's race), absentee balloting is the most fraud-prone method of holding an election. Other studies have shown the same thing. Most of the horror stories at the polls are exaggerated or apocryphal. The horror stories of voting by mail are real. If people want to trust their ballots to the absentee system, they should be allowed that choice. But people who want to be certain their votes will count should be able to vote at the polls.

dbreneman

Posted Sun, Feb 17, 2:18 p.m. Inappropriate

Please, show us some actual proof, not "biggest fears" or "horror stories" of voter fraud in Washington or Oregon vote by mail elections.

Because I have not heard of a single story. Links? Newspaper stories? Investigations? Indictments? Criminal Convictions?

John Fund, did, indeed, write a book. A right wing book that makes a lot of accusations not backed up by facts, prosecutions, or convictions.
Fund's big example of rampant voter fraud is a case in Ohio, where .0045 of the voters tried to vote twice, and, in EVERY SINGLE CASE, were denied the second vote by a perfectly functional Ohio voter registration system that caught them. And, there is no proof that it wasnt just forgetful senior citizens- no criminal fraud was even implied, much less proven.

Background noise.

Again- can someone show us how vote by mail is producing significant amounts of fraud? Like, say, a tenth of a percent?

Ries

Posted Sun, Feb 17, 2:20 p.m. Inappropriate

Thats .0045 Percent, which came out to 19 voters out of 420,000 votes cast, by the way.

Ries

Posted Mon, Feb 18, 8:10 a.m. Inappropriate

Here's another, perhaps larger, problem with voting by mail. We no longer have Election Day: we have an election season. Voters have customarily become educated and more familiar with candidates, positions and issues as political campaigns heat up. Somebody who looks great in October may turn out to have politically fatal flaws in November.

There is a natural temptation to vote early. The bothersome ballot is out of the in basket. Maybe not such a problem for knee-jerk single-issue, single-party loyalists. More thoughtful members of the electorate often change their minds, sometimes more than once. Once that envelope hits the mailbox, there's no turning around, no matter how much better educated we become during the process.

Just wait until the last minute? Possible, but many times not so likely, particularly with the recent success of recycling. The longer that ballot sits on the desk, the less likely it is to make it to election headquarters. So much for an informed electorate.

gabowker

Posted Mon, Feb 18, 12:43 p.m. Inappropriate

Ries, The 2005 case involving Washington's 2004 race for governor went to court for 2 weeks and Judge Bridges found 1,678 "illegal" votes. 4 for Rossi, 1 for the libertarian candidate, and 1,673 unattributed. Election fraud and abuse does occur

animalal

Posted Mon, Feb 18, 1:39 p.m. Inappropriate

The public jeering of 102-year-old Desiline Victor is – like the discussion-thread belittlement of those of us being denied bus service by the maliciously anti-transit voters of Tacoma and Pierce County – a telling example of the socioeconomic hatefulness that is (again) increasingly the defining characteristic of U.S. reactionaries.

To label such malevolence proto-Nazi – that is, similar to attitudes in pre-Holocaust Germany – is useful for three reasons. First, it accurately describes the toxicity of the venom that – as in the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan – is at the core of Rightist thinking in the United States. Secondly, it notes the disturbing fact that – as in Germany on the eve of the Nazis' electoral victories and Hitler's ascent to power – the associated hatreds have already acquired tsunami strength, sweeping across the nation in a wave of brazenly discriminatory laws and policies sadistically targeting minorities, women, elderly and/or disabled people and most of all anyone who happens to be trapped in the now-inescapable post-American-Dream miasma of lower-income hardship economics. Thirdly – as in the final days of the Weimar Republic and now (again) here in the United States as demonstrated most recently by the sneering belittlement of Ms. Victor – there is obviously no longer any brake of conscience on Rightist demagoguery.

No doubt the same moral imbeciles who sneered at Ms. Victor's epic defiance of Florida's attempt to (again) disenfranchise African-Americans also sneer – at least in the malignant privacy of their own bigotry – at James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Michael Goodman. Lest we forget, Messrs. Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman were murdered 21 June 1964 in retaliation for their voter-registration efforts on behalf Mississippi's African-Americans. Anyone who would publicly mock the epic effort of a 102-year-old woman to cast a ballot would no doubt also applaud the slaying of her long-ago benefactors, whose martyrdom forced into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (Disclosure: I was part of the Civil Rights Movement in Tennessee during the summer of 1963 and, from that autumn through early 1965, worked as a reporter for The Oak Ridger, one of the South's very few pro-civil-rights dailies. Three attempts on my own life in '63 and '64 including the fatal poisoning of a beloved dog indicated I too was on a Ku Klux Klan target list.)

Thus – even now when party labels are meaningless and so many of us would rather mark our ballots “none of the above” – I recognize voting rights as an accurate index to the potential health of our political system. In this context – particularly given the brazen efforts by the states of the old Confederacy and their ideological counterparts in the Middle West and Southwest to radically limit the franchise – Mr. Verhovek's suggestion the nation adopt the Washington/Oregon system of voting by mail is not just timely but long overdue. That the objections to such a method are based either on misunderstanding or deception is proven by the electoral histories in question. Congress and the president should act accordingly. As to the sluggish (and admittedly vexing) pace of returns in Washington state, that should be remedied by the Legislature, exactly as Mr. Verhovek suggests, by adopting Oregon's deadline, requiring all ballots to be in the box by election day.

Too bad that, given the bitter realities of a nation in which all three branches of government are controlled by the One Party of Two Names – a single organism of the One Percent demonstrably committed to suppressing the last vestiges of the American experiment in constitutional governance – the chances for national vote-by-mail (or any other such libertarian reform) are obviously nil, whether now or as far ahead as anyone can reasonably foresee. Nevertheless, thanks to Mr. Verhovek for a thought-provoking if-only report, with a hat-tip to Crosscut for another example of real journalism.

Posted Mon, Feb 18, 3:33 p.m. Inappropriate

So, because the taxpayers can't afford to buy you a bus route, we're on the verge of National Socialism? Fascinating.

dbreneman

Posted Mon, Feb 18, 4:32 p.m. Inappropriate

Voting by mail is good as far as it goes. However, I prefer voting in person. Needing to go to a polling station means a person takes voting seriously. I voted absentee for many years because of my work schedule; however, when I could I went to the polls. Also, voting by mail is very individualistic & robs voters of the interpersonal communication that happens at a polling station, as well as gives a voter experience that government is also collective. There the human touch about going to the polls, interacting with the poll workers, as well as your fellow voters. We've lost a valuable community interaction with mail-in-only voting.

Posted Mon, Feb 18, 7:58 p.m. Inappropriate

"Voting in person" is fine for physically healthy people rich enough to own and operate automobiles or otherwise pay for private transport to and from the polls. But were Washington state to abolish mail-in voting – precisely as the Right wants to do -- the only "voter experience" available to citizens without full mobility in anti-transit realms like Tacoma/Pierce County or Whatcom County would be (another) encounter with the exclusionary hatefulness of "our" alleged "community." I never thought of it until this instant (for which thank you), but – unless we lived within walking distance of a polling place and were not too physically disabled to hobble there and then wait in line – destruction of mass transport would be our de facto disenfranchisement, no doubt exactly as the Rightists intend.

Posted Tue, Feb 19, 10:13 a.m. Inappropriate

I don't know of any jurisdiction that denies absentee voting to anyone who requests it. That is simply not an issue. What is an issue is forcing voters to use a corruption-prone system which treats the sanctifying ritual of a free society with all the dignity of ordering grapefruit from the Harry and David catalog. There is great civic virtue in meeting your neighbors to vote at the polls. If you'd rather do so at home, nobody is stopping you.

dbreneman

Posted Tue, Feb 19, 12:57 p.m. Inappropriate

In the all the states where I have lived during and after I became of age to vote (21/1961) – New York, Georgia, Tennessee, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Washington – absentee ballots were originally available only to those who were unavoidably absent, as in military service. To qualify you had to prove a narrowly defined need, and you had to apply at least 90 days before the election. Nevertheless, the only general election in my voter-lifetime from which I was disenfranchised was here in Washington in 1976: work unexpectedly moved me from Seattle to Pierce County three weeks before the election, my schedule made my registered polling place inaccessible (it was now an hour-and-a-half drive each way), and I was deemed ineligible for an absentee ballot even had it not been too late to apply. Today -- crippled, without a car and soon to be denied mass transit – I would be permanently disenfranchised were it not for our vote-by-mail system. Exactly as it should, voting by mail removes all such barriers including poverty and/or disability. Alas, your ignorance of these realities -- or more likely your Ayn Rand hostility toward maximizing the franchise -- is as unsurprising as it is repugnant.

Posted Wed, Feb 20, 11:12 a.m. Inappropriate

In response to lorenbliss' comment of Feb 19:
No jurisdiction has denied a disabled person an absentee ballot in modern times, and in recent years most Washington counties allowed people to sign up for permanent absentee status. The ACLU would be all over that like cops on donuts were that not the case. As far as the bother of driving 1-1/2 hours goes, I don't think I need to remind you that a lot of people risked (and many lost) their lives to get the disenfranchised the right to vote. A one-time inconvenient drive was, in comparison, a small price to have paid. My daily commute averages 1-1/2 hours each way, so whether such a drive constitutes an oppressive burden is definitely a matter of personal opinion.


But all of this is only a side issue to the fact that if Washington voters regain the right to vote at the polls, it will not have a negative effect on you whatsoever (as absentee ballots will not be eliminated), and will have a tremendous positive advantage for the majority of voters. So why do you oppose it?

dbreneman

Posted Wed, Feb 20, 5:10 a.m. Inappropriate

"Oregon’s system is better than ours because of a simple, perfectly reasonable requirement that puts the onus on the voter to make sure his or her ballot is at the county elections office by Election Night, when all the ballots are counted."
--
Bullshit today, bullshit tomorrow, bullshit forever. Accuracy and accessibility trump speed of counting, every time.

ivan

Posted Wed, Feb 20, 6 p.m. Inappropriate

In response to dbreneman's insulting distortions earlier today (20 February):

I say again, "my schedule made my registered polling place inaccessible."

In other words (and much to my astonishment), the (non-Guild) newspaper by which in 1976 I had just been hired would not give me time off to vote – would not even let me leave work early to vote – hence the length of the drive became prohibitive; there was no way I could get from the newsroom to the polling place before the latter closed.

I was astonished because, in civilized realms, time off work to vote is (or was) a civil right, required by law. It never occurred to me it might be different out here in the Great (sweatshop) Northwest.

Apropos absentee ballots, the requirements vary radically from state to state (see http://www.nonprofitvote.org/voting-in-your-state.html), in which context note the huge obstacles by which the U.S. makes proof of disability the most difficult such process in the industrial world. Note too these requirements can be changed at any time by legislative whim.

As to why I oppose returning to polling-place voting, it is because voting by mail obviously results in far greater exercise of the franchise -- hence a closer approximation of democratic process.

Apropos fighting for the right to vote, how dare you question my commitment? Where the hell were you when I was risking my life – literally – in the Civil Rights Movement and later on its behalf?

Posted Thu, Feb 21, 10:53 a.m. Inappropriate

I hate to state the obvious but 1976 was a very long time ago, so the example given, to be kind, is just a bit aged.

I have to say I do miss the community ritual of voting at the polls, quite a bit in fact. I liked it best when I had the option of either method but I do understand in these days of serious fiscal distress for many local governments, it just isn't practical to take a half-step back. I am making the assumption that what we have been told regarding the expense of voting at the polls is in fact true.

The issue of the extension of the "voting season" as one commenter put it is a real issue though, both on the front-end and with counts and certification. Ballots seem to go out so early (necessarily?) as to make substantive media coverage of candidates problematic and, as I understand it, campaigns both more expensive and expansive. I wonder too if it increases the likelihood of "uninformed" voting for those who feel the need to vote but just dash it off to get it off the table, contrary to the author's more thoughtful approach. Could be wrong, just throwing the thought out there ...

tom_hyde

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