(What is Civic Mind?  Read our welcome post for the series!)

This past spring, the coronavirus pandemic added a layer of difficulty for voters wishing to cast their ballots.  Already voters in Texas and other states have faced long lines in recent years, due to a decrease in the number of polling places. In April, Wisconsin voters waited for hours due to the hitches from safety guidelines after the state supreme court rejected the governor’s request for an extension.  However, voters in some states did not have the same experience.  Some states, like Pennsylvania, had adopted no-excuse absentee voting prior to the pandemic or made this change after its onset.  This shift, along with pushing back the date of primaries, allowed voters the opportunity – though it did not require them – to vote by mail.

Although the current context has put the idea of voting by mail front and center in the public conversation, it is by no means a new way to cast ballots.  Rather, states have adopted various reforms to increase voter access to the polls.  The power to establish election practices has been primarily left to the states, based on the provisions of Article I, Section 4, Clause 1 of the US Constitution.  The benefits of the federalist system are that states are able to experiment and also learn from successful practices elsewhere.  Based on the data from states that have used mail-only voting systems, as well as the number of states that have moved to no-excuse absentee ballots, this method of voting is not only established, the results are encouraging, even though it is important to recognize that the way that such a system is put into place impacts its results.

Oregon has nearly 40 years of experience with an effective vote-by-mail system.   Some counties have used the option since the early 1980s and the state as a whole experimented with it in a special congressional election in 1995.  The response was so strong that they modified the entire system a few years later, with resounding support in a state-wide referendum.  Not only did this policy change extend the practice across elections, but also made it the only method of voting.  Officials note minimal issues of fraud/security and champion the increase in turnout.  More broadly, alternate means of voting have served an increasing percentage of individuals across the country.

Ultimately, the vote-by-mail method is part of a larger topic of voting accessibility, which has long been a concern for those studying democratic systems.  The United States has had fairly low levels of turnout in comparison to other developed democracies, only rising in the last few general elections. Part of the difference relates to the need for US voters to actively register, as opposed to automatic registration that occurs in other countries.  (And of course, Australia stands out in its rates due to compulsory voting, a characteristic for which there are valid philosophical disagreements.) In addition, compared to parliamentary and/or unitary systems, the United States has many more elections across its levels of government.

Over the years, there have been numerous reforms designed to help promote voter turnout, especially among lower-income individuals who may have challenges in transportation or taking time from hourly jobs to vote.  Early on, the idea of Election Day as a holiday drew attention, but the reality is that it would not help those individuals whose jobs continued day to day in retail and other necessity positions.  As a result, states have explored several other options.  Early in-person voting has existed in some states for several decades, allowing voters multiple days over which to cast their ballots.  Mail-in ballot systems, as noted more recently, have grown to include five states that operate solely by mail (in addition to Oregon – Washington, Colorado, Hawaii and Utah).  However, more recently we have seen a rise in another method that seems to offer more promise for prompter reform – no-excuse absentee voting.

Although the practice of no-excuse absentee voting has been around for quite a while, with California first launching the practice in the early 1980s, it has spread as an option in subsequent years. With absentee voting already present in states, allowing individuals to cast their vote by mail – even if they will be in their area of residence on Election Day – builds on existing systems in the states for managing, distributing and counting ballots.  There is certainly something to be said for casting a ballot in person – this system allows both.  In addition, the hybrid approach allows for states – and voters – to have more time to consider the impact of a longer-term shift to vote-by-mail as the primary option.  Currently, 30 states have opened their absentee ballot process to allow no-excuse option, in addition to the five states that conduct voting by mail only.

Although some challenges exist with this option, they can be effectively addressed.  The timing of such a transition, depending on how existing systems work, can make or break the process, as the responsible offices/bureaus will need to have sufficient staff and resources. In addition, voters will need to adapt to the new process, especially if they have never cast an absentee ballot. Some states mail the ballots automatically, others require the voter to request the ballot; the voter must then return the ballot by the deadline.  Thus, states that allow for both may allow people to shift more gradually. (More information related to common concerns is offered by the Bipartisan Policy Center.)

This past week, I received an email notification of eligibility to vote by mail in Pennsylvania.  (Due to my registration category, I was not eligible to vote in the primaries in June, so I had not previously been set up in the system for this process).  It was pretty simple.  PA tracks confirmation with emails notifying sending/ receipt and processing.  It also allows you to select automatic mailing of future ballots, making it a one and done step if you continue to vote in future elections unless you move.  For more information on the processes available in your state, please check this information from Ballotpedia, an initiative of the non-partisan Lucy Burns Institute.  You can also have a deeper look into election information on your state, and even access the link to its online voter registration.

In case you are interested, Lucy Burns was one of the suffragettes who teamed up with Alice Paul and others to launch the National Woman’s Party and lead the final push to secure support for the passage of the 19th Amendment. They and others have sacrificed much to secure and protect the right to vote; we not only honor their efforts but increase the responsibility of our system when we cast a vote — especially an informed one.



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