Weeks before Election Day, every registered voter in Oregon, Washington and Colorado got a ballot in the mail. They didn’t have to sign up, and no one had to make any special plans to head to out-of-the-way polling places within a specific window: Elections in those three states are conducted entirely by mail.
It’s a controversial practice: Democrats who passed legislation creating all-mail elections say they help boost participation, especially for those who have to work on Election Day. Some Republicans say it’s a transparent attempt to tip the scales toward Democratic candidates, and that it’s ripe for fraud and abuse.
But the Republican view on all-mail elections isn’t uniform: Kim Wyman (R), Washington’s secretary of state, is a big fan. Scott Gessler (R), Colorado’s secretary of state, isn’t.
In Washington, Wyman has years of experience with elections conducted almost entirely by mail. The state allowed voters to register for permanent absentee ballots beginning in the early 1990s; by 1996, more than half of all votes cast came in through the mail. In some of the state’s more rural counties, it didn’t make financial sense to continue operating polling places, when so many voters had already cast their ballots.
“We would see turnout as high as 90 percent among absentee voters in some small elections,” Wyman said in an interview. “That, I think, really solidified for a lot of elections administrators around the state that running two separate elections was becoming problematic.”
To Gessler, whose state only began conducting elections entirely by mail this year, the system creates the potential for what he calls a “single point of failure” — the U.S. Postal Service.
“The Postal Service is cutting back service for cost-cutting measures,” Gessler said. “You’re seeing some disenfranchisement of voters where the post office is just so slow.”
“I think more people are disenfranchised through all-mail ballots because of the post office than anything else in the country,” he said.
Richard Coolidge, a spokesman for Gessler’s office, said the secretary of state worked overtime to collect mail from the central processing facility in Denver to meet the Election Day deadline. They found 366 ballots that would have otherwise been thrown out for arriving too late.
Ballot security is a concern for some Republicans, too. Wyman said Washington avoids any funny business with ballots by cross-checking every signature on a security envelope with signatures filed when a voter actually registers. A mismatched signature raises red flags, which elections officials can investigate.
“The vote by mail process is more secure [than in-person voting]. We actually check every single signature that’s on a ballot to the voter registration file,” Wyman said. “I have a high level of confidence that the ballots that were issued and counted were actually cast by that voter.”
But what worries Gessler is same-day voter registration. Colorado is one of a handful of states that allows voters to sign up to vote, or change their address, at the polls. In competitive state legislative elections, a handful of votes can swing a race.
People “will move into a district, or at least have an intent to move into a district, where their vote will be able to sway a competitive election,” he said. “It is a real concern for state legislative races in the Denver metro area or the Colorado Springs area.”
All-mail elections can certainly boost turnout: Even in a year that boasted the lowest voter turnout since the 1942 midterms, more than half of voters cast a ballot in Oregon and Colorado (Washington, which didn’t have any competitive statewide elections in 2014, clocked in at a disappointing 41.2 percent, according to estimates by the U.S. Elections Project).
Political scientists say all-mail elections aren’t likely to boost turnout too much in presidential years, when voter attention is highest. Instead, it’s likely to boost turnout in off-year and mid-year elections for down-ballot races, when voters see the ballot on their dining room table as a reminder to sit down and consider the candidates.
“Given the opportunity to choose, they choose to have the ballot mailed to them,” Wyman said of Washington state voters. “They like the convenience of vote by mail and the fact that they get to sit down and control when they vote.”
Conducting elections entirely by mail is almost universally good for the professionals who manage and consult for campaigns. When voters get their ballots a few weeks before Election Day, those campaigns begin with a known universe of people with ballots in hand. As voters return their ballots, they are crossed off the target list, allowing campaigns to refine their contact universe and save money by boosting efficiency.
Most critically for the voter, returning a ballot can end the ceaseless calls and door-knocks in a hotly contested election.