We’ve been thinking about elections backward.
“The ballot belongs to the voter, not the government,” said Phil Keisling, the former secretary of state of Oregon. “As long as it can be done with safety and integrity, it’s the obligation of the government to get it to me. It’s not my responsibility to qualify for it and get it.”
Many states are taking that goal seriously, and to meet it, they are taking steps to abolish the traditional polling booth.
Voting as a right should not be controversial. But in many places, election officials are trying to make voting more difficult. One example is Georgia, where Gov. Brian Kemp defeated Stacey Abrams by a sliver. At the time of the election, Mr. Kemp was secretary of state, overseeing voting, and rejected calls to resign and avoid a conflict of interest. Georgia purged thousands of voters from the rolls and threw out hundreds of absentee ballots. Some precincts had too few voting machines and hours when the machines were down. All of these issues disproportionately affected black voters.
The success of this voter suppression is likely to encourage more Republicans to do the same. It’s very dangerous. But we should also worry about other states.
New York, for example, doesn’t do voter suppression, but it’s one of many states where voting can be truly inconvenient. We New Yorkers can’t register on the same day we vote. We can only get an absentee ballot for a prescribed set of reasons. We can’t get permanent absentee status. We don’t get Election Day off from work. Until the law was changed this year, we couldn’t vote before Election Day and were automatically de-registered if we moved. And polling places in many parts of the state opened at noon.
We tend not to think of this as bad behavior, because the restrictions aren’t openly racist. (Except that the whole “let’s vote on a weekday and not give hourly workers time off” is a way to make it hard for low-wage workers to vote.) New York’s rules never struck me as problematic before, because it’s how everyone voted when I was growing up.
But it isn’t how everyone votes now.
In Washington, Oregon and Colorado — and any minute now, Hawaii, where the governor is about to sign a new law — there are no longer traditional polling places. (California is also rolling this out county by county; by the 2020 election, half of voters will get a ballot at home.) The states mail ballots in bar-coded envelopes to every registered voter several weeks before the election. It’s automatic; the voter doesn’t need to request it.
Those states are blue or purple, but home voting is also growing in red states. Voters in 28 of Utah’s 29 counties automatically get ballots at home. Nebraska and North Dakota also use it, to varying degrees. And nearly half of states allow certain elections to be conducted entirely by home voting. It allows voters to mark their ballots at their leisure and either mail it back or drop it in a ballot drop box. (Most use a drop box, which is why it’s not entirely accurate to call it vote-by-mail.) Some states allow voters to track the progress of their ballots electronically.
If you’d prefer to vote the old-fashioned way, you can still go to a staffed voter center in a central location — for example, the township hall. There any voter can cast a ballot, regardless of geography. “We’ll send it to the right place,” said Kim Wyman, Washington’s secretary of state. And people with disabilities who can’t vote with a paper ballot have other options.
Oregon was the first vote-at-home state, passing it in a popular referendum in 1998, when Mr. Keisling, as secretary of state, was in charge of state elections. Washington joined in the 2012 election, and Colorado in 2014.
Ms. Wyman, a Republican, said that vote-at-home isn’t a partisan thing. (Here’s an article recommending home voting by Mr. Keisling and Sam Reed, the former Washington secretary of state, another Republican.)
“Lots of ideas about engaging voters certainly scare members of my party,” Ms. Wyman said. “They think if you make it so easy to vote, Democrats are going to be the ones voting. I don’t think that’s what happens. You’re making it easier for everyone.”
Mr. Keisling, who is director of the Center for Public Service at Portland State University’s Hatfield School of Government and chairman of the National Vote at Home Institute, opposed switching Oregon to home voting in 1989, when he was a state legislator. “It was the ‘crunch of autumn leaves’ argument — that sense of community that I personally enjoyed, going to our local elementary school, seeing neighbors, feeling connected to this great American tradition,” he said.
He said he eventually realized that he was confusing a ritual of democracy with its essence: participation — and that many people who wanted to vote weren’t able to participate on a weekday.
Every move toward making voting more convenient has garnered opposition — and not always from whom you’d expect. In 1995, the Democratic governor of Oregon — backed by national Democrats — vetoed home voting.
“Whichever party thought it was able to best take advantage of it would like it,” said Christopher Mann, an assistant professor of political science at Skidmore College. “In the 1990s, pre-Election Day voting was seen as a giant conspiracy to advantage Republicans, because at the time Republicans were better at mobilizing people.”
Today, there are many more likely Democrats than Republicans among nonvoters. The younger you are, the more likely you are to support Democrats, and the less likely to vote. “But Republicans have plenty of voters they can mobilize as well,” Dr. Mann said. Rural people might prefer voting at home because polling places are sparse. Tens of millions of older people don’t vote and might be the first to embrace home voting.
Home-voting states have high turnout. But that doesn’t prove home voting is the cause. It could be that states with a stronger culture of voting are more likely to institute such reforms.
There is some evidence that when places shift to home voting, turnout jumps. Between the midterm elections in 2014 and 2018, Utah rolled out home voting and had the greatest rise in turnout of any state. The five California counties that switched to home voting in 2018 increased their turnout morethan the rest of the state.
The size of the effect, though, depends on the kind of election.
Charles Stewart III, a professor of political science at M.I.T. and an adviser to the National Vote at Home Institute, said that in presidential elections, any structural change is dwarfed by what the candidates and their campaigns do. In midterm elections, “the jury is still out,” Dr. Stewart said.
But getting everyone a ballot automatically has a huge effect in elections voters don’t know much about. In primaries, special elections and local races, turnout is often in single digits. “It tends to shoot way up with vote-at-home,” Dr. Stewart said. (Not only is voting more convenient; having that ballot envelope staring at you from your kitchen table reminds you there’s an election.) He said that early research indicated that the extra voters are not new to voting but people who do vote in bigger elections.
Vote-at-home is also associated with more people voting their whole ballot — even the mysterious judicial races and ballot propositions at the tail end. In Utah, home voting was associated with a 5.5 percentage point increasein voting in down-ballot races.
Is it cheaper? “The No. 1 issue for election officials is finding enough qualified people to run polling places,” said Amber McReynolds, who was election director in Denver (a champion of voter convenience) and now is executive director of Vote at Home. She said that voting at home requires only 30 percent to 40 percent of the staff. The Pew Charitable Trusts studied Colorado’s switch in 2014 and found that the vote-at-home system was 40 percent cheaper.
Buying new, secure election equipment for polling places is an expense vote-at-home states can skip. But they do need machinery to process and count ballots. California’s secretary of state requested $134 millionto cover half the cost of updating counties’ voting equipment as they move away from traditional polling places. “Vote-by-mail has costs, too,” Ms. Wyman said. “I’ve never tried to sell vote-by-mail on it being a less expensive model.”
Ballot integrity is a big concern with any voting method. Home voting has some safeguards — a machine can compare signatures on the ballot with the one on file, and if they don’t match, a human takes a look. “Comparing signatures is better than poll workers asking for name and address,” Dr. Mann said. “Poll workers are not trained signature experts. Computers are more scientific.”
Poll workers tend to scrutinize people of color more than whites, Dr. Mann said. “Some of it’s fairly benign and some not at all.” Voting at home removes this bias. “You take out the human interaction and you take out the problems that come with it,” he said.
One possible problem with home voting is the lack of voting privacy, combined with family power imbalances — a husband, for example, could force his wife to vote a certain way. Or someone can wave cash at people for their vote. This could always happen, of course — vote-buying and intimidation are old stories — but with vote-at-home, the buyers can demand to see the ballot before it’s turned in. Still, such incidents are almost nonexistent. Mr. Keisling wrotethat Oregon has seen about 24 cases in 100 million ballots — none organized or of consequence.
And home voting, which uses paper ballots, is a solution to by far the greatest threat to the integrity of the vote: hacking.
“I’ve always approached my job as removing as many barriers as we can, balanced with controls for security,” said Ms. Wyman, the Republican. “It can drive people on my side of the aisle crazy a little bit: They think “voters should have to work for it, you can’t make voting easy.’ But when you see voter suppression in the South, with entire voting blocs of black voters unable to participate, you see why this matters.”
Compiled by Olalekan Adeleye
New York Times