The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why don’t Marylanders vote?

Montgomery County "test vote" volunteers. (Lois Raimondo/The Washington Post)

Eric Cortellessa is digital editor of the Washington Monthly.

On paper, Maryland looks like one of the United States’ most voter-friendly states. It holds eight days of early voting, has same-day and automatic voter registration, allows returning citizens to vote and doesn’t impose undue obstacles, such as voter-identification laws, to prevent people from exercising their franchise.

Why, then, do Marylanders vote in such disappointingly low numbers? In 2018, for instance, only 54 percent of eligible Maryland voters showed up to the polls for the general election — meaning almost half of all the state’s residents who could have voted didn’t. That was a significant increase from the previous midterm elections — only 44 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in 2014 — but it still reveals a stunning lack of voter participation in one of the most politically engaged states in the nation.

The problem is even worse in local elections, which rarely crack the 20 percent threshold. That’s why Rockville, the state’s third-largest city, decided to try something different after only 15 percent of eligible voters turned out during its 2015 municipal elections.

This November, it conducted the first election in Maryland — indeed, on the Eastern Seaboard — to be run entirely by universal vote-by-mail, otherwise known as vote-at-home.

Instead of going to a polling place and casting a ballot the old-fashioned way, voting at home allows people to receive their ballot in the mail a few weeks before Election Day and then mail it in or drop it off at a secure site.

It’s a system now being used in Oregon, Colorado, Utah and Washington state, where it has been getting results. Last year, a study commissioned by the Washington Monthly found Utah counties that enacted vote-by-mail in 2016 had a turnout rate of more than 5 percentage points higher than those that didn’t. In 2018, every vote-at-home state had a turnout rate at least 10 percentage points higher among eligible voters than the national average.

In Rockville, the results were even more encouraging.

Turnout in the Montgomery County suburb nearly doubled from four years ago — from 15 percent to about 27 percent of eligible voters. What’s more, 58 percent of Rockville’s residents who voted this year had not participated in the city’s past two municipal elections. This showcases yet another benefit consistent with vote-at-home: It doesn’t just boost turnout overall but especially in local and down-ballot elections where turnout is typically at its lowest.

If anything, Rockville’s election should send a message to Maryland legislators and county officials that it’s time for the state to embrace what is arguably the most effective and potent way to increase voter turnout and engage a more diverse array of citizens in the political process.

Automatic voter registration and early voting are important, but they don’t turn nearly as many non-voters into voters as vote-at-home does. That helps explain why three of the four states that have adopted vote-by-mail had some of the country’s highest turnout rates in 2018. Indeed, new research from the Analyst Institute shows that vote-at-home is more effective at increasing turnout than many of the buzziest other proposals, such as making Election Day a national holiday.

Yet vote-at-home doesn’t only boost turnout, it also actually saves taxpayers money over the long run. The Pew Charitable Trusts found that, since 2014, Colorado has saved $6 per voter per election.

Though Rockville reported spending more than $300,000 more on this election than the previous one, that was mostly on outreach to voters, alerting them to the system change and buying new equipment, such as secure ballot boxes and vote-scanning technology. Those dollars won’t have to be spent again.

Still, the issue has tended to face a partisan logjam. Outside of Maryland, Republicans have worried that the increased turnout caused by vote-at-home would benefit Democrats. That’s not crazy: The effects have been most pronounced among young voters, who lean heavily Democratic.

At the same time, another study commissioned by the Washington Monthly found that registered Republican voters outperformed registered Democratic voters in Colorado in its first election under an all-vote-by-mail system. The ambiguity of the data partly explains why left-leaning advocacy groups have been slow to champion vote-at-home, even though it has a much stronger record of turning out voters than other electoral reforms.

That said, the point of vote-by-mail is not to help Democrats or Republicans. It’s to help democracy. As Amber McReynolds, executive director of the National Vote at Home Institute, told me: “Election policy must be about who votes, not who wins.” If Maryland is serious about getting more people to vote, it might have found the solution it’s been looking for.

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this piece: Maryland needs a vote-by-mail system

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