Vote-By-Mail Just Works Better

Noah Brand makes the case for nationwide mail-in ballots.

Today, all over America, people will cast their votes for the presidency, for senate and congressional candidates, and for thousands of local offices and ballot measures that do so much of the real work of government. They will ask for time off of work, they will drive and bike and take buses to their polling places, they will stand in line and they will pull levers, touch screens, and punch cards, depending on where they live. They will endure false information, voter intimidation, and more, all to do their sacred duty as citizens in a democracy. This is a good time to remind folks that if they see any sort of chicanery at their polling place, there are tools in place to help record and report it.

Me, I voted two weeks ago, and I didn’t do any of that. My ballot and voter’s pamphlet had arrived a few days before, so when I had a little time, I sat down at my desk with a fresh cup of coffee and voted, my cat purring on my lap the whole time. I took my time going over some of the more obscure ballot measures and carefully reading the candidates’ statements for minor offices. There was no rush, no line behind me, and I needed no explanation of the device I was using to vote: a pencil. When I was done, I double-checked my ballot, placed it in the security envelope that had come with it, placed that inside the larger envelope identifying me by name and address, signed that, and dropped it in the mail on my way out to lunch.

Here in Oregon, we went to statewide vote-by-mail in 1998, and it’s worked out really well. Critics raised concerns about ballot security and the specter of widespread voter fraud, but in the real world, that simply hasn’t happened. Folks vote at their own pace, with ample time to read up on any candidates or issues they’re on the fence about, and nobody has to call in to work, get turned away at a closed door, or face down some creep trying to challenge their rights. The system provides full secrecy, security, and none of the technological vulnerabilities that threaten other states, and it saves the state around $3 million a year.

Most importantly, since vote-by-mail was instituted, Oregon has consistently ranked among the top states for voter turnout. To nobody’s surprise, when you make it easier for people to vote, more people will vote. Give people more time to vote, and more people will vote. Save people having to go out of their way to vote, and more people will vote. It also provides more time for reminders, as friends nudge each other, “Hey, you voted yet?” It makes it easier on the disabled, the homebound, those who work odd hours or can’t get away on Tuesday, everyone whose life has some logistical complications. Those people get to participate in democracy again, and so Oregon enjoys high voter turnout.

Now, I am aware that there are some contemptible poltroons in this country who are against high voter turnout. I’d like to say I don’t understand what sort of sneering disregard for the basic principles of democracy would allow one to hold that opinion, but unfortunately I do understand. It’s easy to assume, in a sort of vague, unstated, unexamined way, that certain people aren’t really Americans, not real Americans, and thus their participation in our elections is somehow presumptuous and rude. And yes, “certain people” means pretty much exactly what you think it does. What it always does. Unless someone wants to show me voter registrations from rich, gated suburbs being challenged and literally thrown in the trash? We’ll wait here while you go look.

These opponents of democracy deserve no further consideration. We were talking about participation in democracy, and that is only strengthened by more people voting. Indeed, it can only be strengthened by more people voting. The entire point of representative government is that the will of the people is made manifest in our government through our collective voice at the polls. That’s the will of all the people, not just the ones you like or agree with. The closer we come to achieving that ideal, the more perfect our democracy. The closer we come to hearing the voices of all of our people, the better we are doing at being a democratic republic. If we hear from every single voter in the country and our government makes manifest their will, the result may not be what you or I would personally choose, but it will be undeniably fair.

The Capraesque tone of the previous paragraph aside, I do consider myself ultimately a pragmatist. My test for any government policy or program is simple and unvarying: does this plan work in the real world, or does it not? One of the great strengths of our nation is that we have fifty states field-testing all sorts of different plans to see if they work or not, and I’m here to tell you, up here in Oregon and Washington we have been field-testing vote-by-mail for years, and it works really well. It’s secure, it’s easy, it saves money, it reduces or eliminates many of the abuses of the voting process, and best of all, it provides a better and more complete representation of the will of the people. For all those reasons, I believe postal voting should be adopted nationwide, and for all those exact reasons, a lot of people are still working to make sure it won’t be.


Photo—Wikimedia commons

About Noah Brand

Noah Brand is a writer and editor, and quite possibly also a cartoon character from the 1930s. His life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. He is usually found in Portland, Oregon, directly underneath a very nice hat.


  1. wellokaythen says:

    In a tiny number of cases, you’ll have someone who voted early while alive but who is deceased before election day. Actual dead people being counted, which is a strange quirk.

    On the plus side, though, I can tell you that mailing in your ballot early makes all those campaign ads you hear later even more meaningless. They actually sound less obnoxious, and I notice them less, once I’ve mailed my ballot and it’s out of my hands.

  2. I think one thing that would worry people is verification and assurance that the vote actually got counted.

    How can one know for sure that there vote made it in, more importantly made it in time?

    It’s true that voting by mail gives you the comfort and resources to look things over and make sure you’re voting for who you want to vote for. But at the same time there’s enough of a problem with people who make their picks, drop their ballot in the box that’s 10ft away, and still have problems/questions/controversy over whether or not their vote was actually counted.

    I think people would worry that in the event of mailing, which is more than 10ft away, they would be worried about verification.

    Now mind you I am not trying to say that this would prevent mail in voting from being implemented on a nation wide basis. I’m just expressing what I think would be a common concern.

  3. Mail-in voting is dangerous because of the loss of the secret ballot. It’s far too easy for someone to be coerced or bribed into changing their vote if it’s possible to prove who you voted for. Perhaps Oregon doesn’t have that issue much (maybe because you have a solid Democrat lead there?), but if it was implemented across the US, it seems pretty certain to create opportunities for people who want to have more than their fair say in the democratic process.

  4. wellokaythen says:

    P.S. Another side effect is that when the places I lived switched to mail-in ballots, I got a lot more political junkmail delivered to my house. The polling stations can keep ads 100 feet away, but when it’s voting by mail the parties can invade your house, and they do so more aggressively I think. I hate that parties now treat my own home as a polling station.

  5. wellokaythen says:

    I agree, for the most part. (I’ve voted in Oregon and Washington. [No, not at the same time.] I just mailed one in a few days ago. Very convenient.) It’s not a panacea, of course. I think the benefits vastly outweigh the drawbacks, but there are some downsides that still have to be taken into account.

    Ballot fraud is less possible, perhaps, but some of it has just evolved into new forms. We place more power into the hands of postal workers than poll station workers. I’m not sure which is more reliable. Of course, a corrupt postal worker could probably do less damage than someone in charge of a whole ballot box.

    I hope that voting at home will give people more of a chance to be thoughtful in their voting, but I’m not sure that’s the case. Perhaps in many cases there’s the opposite effect. When I cast a ballot at home in my own cocoon, nestled in my own world, I might be less likely to think of other people, less likely to be charitable, less focused on a public good than I would if I had to go somewhere else and wait in line with people I don’t know and take part in a more collective activity. I might even be more comfortable voting for something that I’d be ashamed to admit that I support.

    Again, a lot of speculation on my part. I’m just wondering if people think differently about their place in society when they vote at home or vote at a polling station. There could be some increase in participation in some ways and a decrease in civic mindedness in other ways.

    Before vote-by-mail, every polling station I went to was staffed by very nice senior citizens, and the atmosphere was always very positive and friendly. There was more of a warm fuzzy feeling voting there, like I just did something really important and healthy and that I can be proud of, than I ever got from mailing it in. There’s a part of me that’s a little sad about that change. Small price to pay, but it’s worth a little something.

  6. AnonymousDog says:

    I think there is a certain civic value in people physically, openly, going to polling places and voting.

    I think there is a value in the open, direct democracy of town meetings, but I’ve noticed that a lot of people don’t like to express opinions or vote out in the open. I have to wonder how many people who vote by mail do so out of a reluctance to openly participate in the political process.

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