Why the whole country should vote like us (by mail)
Washington state ballot (2010). Credit: 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.
And most important, it ensured I would never have reason to miss an election, to give up on a long line for the voting booth because I just had to pick up the kids or get to the office to finish a story.
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.
Our vote-by-mail system here in Washington is, by contrast, a national laughingstock because we allow ballots to trickle in as long as they were postmarked by Election Day, resulting in ridiculously drawn-out waits for final results. New York Times columnist Gail Collins memorably zinged us a few years back by noting that our state “appears to bring the ballots in by pony express and then let them age in oak casks for a month or two before they're ready to be sampled.”
To be sure, not everyone finds Desiline Victor, the centenarian Florida voter, as inspiring as I do.
The day after President Obama’s address before Congress, three Fox News radio hosts mocked Victor, with one saying the Haitian-born Creole-speaking onetime farmer, who became a U.S. citizen at the age of 94, was probably “happy” to get out of the house anyway.
“They held her up as a victim!” added Bill Hemmer, another host. “What was she the victim of? Rashes on the bottom of her feet?”
I didn’t find this very funny. God knows how many other elderly voters in Florida simply could not abide such a long wait to vote. Victor was an Obama voter, but it’s odd that Sunshine State Republicans, who cut early voting and other ballot-access measures, wouldn’t leap at a chance to help more of the elderly vote: Mitt Romney won the over-65 crowd, after all, by 56 to 44 percent, according to exit polls.
Desiline Victor finally got her say in the election, and that’s the lovely part of her story. But if Florida were really interested in doing things right, she would never have been a story at all.
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