By Paul Rozycki
How do you want to vote this year? No, I don’t mean whether you like Democrats, Republicans, Joe Biden, or Donald Trump. I mean, how do you actually want to cast your ballot? It seems simple, but there are a lot of choices.
It’s been done many ways
Voting: It’s the most basic ritual of our elections, and it’s at the heart of what we call the democratic process. At one time, voting was done by voice vote in public, and others were given preprinted ballots by their parties (only later did the government provide the paper ballots). In legislative assemblies, some voting is done by voice vote, some is done by standing and passing by a vote counter, sometimes by a roll call of names, and at other times it’s done by an electronic tote-board. For most elections, the methods have included printed ballots, voting machines, scanned ballots, computer screens, and punch cards.
The ancient Greeks voted by dropping pebbles into an urn. (The word ballot is derived from a French term meaning “small ball.”) Romans voted by writing on a wax tablet. In The Gambia, voters toss marbles into different colored drums. Some organizations decide whom they accept by placing a white ball or a black ball into a box. (Thus the term “blackballed” for those rejected.)
And while there have been many ways to vote, and the details vary in a thousand ways, usually it’s been a communal event, where we join together with others, to share the practice of democracy. Now, with the fear of the COVID-19 virus, that may be changing.
Voting by mail
Within the last few weeks, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson mailed out absentee voting applications to all 7.7 million registered voters in the state, giving them the option of staying home on Election Day, and casting their ballots by mail.
Voting by mail isn’t a new practice. It was first used during the Civil War to allow soldiers to cast their ballots from the field in 1864. Since that time, it has generally been available to those in the military, or others required to be away from their usual voting location. Five states already use it as their main, or only, way of voting. Another 21 states allow for the option. Many others, like Michigan, have made absentee voting open to all, with no reason needed, as a result of a 2018 initiative vote. In the past, absentee ballots were available only to those over a certain age, unable to get to the polls for health reasons, or those who were otherwise occupied on Election Day.
While the use of the absentee ballot has grown, it has not been used by a majority of voters. Most voters went to the polls and cast their ballots in person. About 27 percent voted absentee in the 2018 midterm election.
That all changed with the COVID-19 pandemic, where we were all advised to avoid crowds and public gatherings. The potential of the new absentee rules were tested in our recent May elections. May elections typically have few issues on the ballot and have a very low turnout.
Yet last May 5, in an essentially all-mail election, the vote went smoothly and the voters in Genesee County turned out in record numbers — more than 25 percent — to approve bond issues and millages in several local school districts.
Conflict over vote-by-mail
So it worked well. We have a pandemic on our hands. Maybe vote-by-mail is the best way to go, right?
Not so fast.
The proposal to move to voting by mail has met with opposition. Some of it is concerned about the mechanics of the mail process, and how quickly our system could change. Some of it is purely partisan, where one party feels that turning out more voters would hurt their chances for victory. President Trump and Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson exchanged angry tweets as he threatened to withhold federal funds over her recent move to encourage mail-in voting.
So what are the advantages and disadvantages of voting by mail?
- Many states already have used the system with few problems. The fear that it would lead to fraud seems unfounded. In all the elections held between 2000 and 2012, only 491 cases of absentee voter fraud were encountered out of hundreds of millions of votes cast.
- Voting by mail increases voter turnout and participation. When Oregon implemented its vote-by-mail process, the turnout increased by at least 10 percent. Other states reported similar results. Genesee County’s May election showed an even more dramatic increase for what is usually a very low turnout election.
- A vote-by-mail system gives voters more time to study proposals and candidates.
- It doesn’t seem to favor one party over another. One of the major sources of opposition to voting by mail is from Republicans, who feel that it would favor Democrats. Some Democrats favor the proposal for the same reason. But most serious research suggests that a well-run vote-by-mail system would increase the electorate, but would guarantee no automatic advantage for either party.
- It would save money. When Oregon moved to an all-mail system, they saved about 30 percent of the cost of running elections by not having to maintain polling places or pay as many poll workers.
- It would be heathier. In a time of COVID-19, it would limit the spread of the virus by keeping us at home rather than gathering at the polls. That was a major concern when Wisconsin held its traditional primary as the COVID crisis began.
- It might increase the possibility of fraud. When voting takes place outside of the public eye, there is the possibility of coercion or undue influence on voters. Even scholars who argue that voter fraud is rare admit that absentee voting is more prone to fraud that in-person voting. Similarly, while actual fraud is rare, voter registration lists are often inaccurate, and could result in ballot applications to dead voters or ineligible voters.
- Some argue that voter turnout doesn’t increase in the long run. While Oregon showed a sharp increase in turnout when it first used the mail-in option, the levels slipped in later years.
- It’s expensive to set up. While it may be cheaper in the long run for states to use all-mail voting, the initial costs can be substantial, and might be a challenge for state and local governments to implement in time for the August 4, and November 3, 2020, elections.
- In those cases where voters have to pay postage, some may feel that it an unfair financial burden, and a kind of a “poll tax.” That small cost might discourage some voters.
- There can be errors in handling mailed-in votes. Errors, or late delivery of mailed-in votes, could prevent voters from having their ballots counted or could delay results.
- Some may regret the loss of a voting tradition. There is a long custom of voters showing up in person, walking the gauntlet of candidates with flyers in hand, and greeting their neighbors as they go in to mark their ballots.
While most of the arguments favor some sort of voting-by-mail system, and there are good reasons to consider it, there are still some serious concerns for local election administrators. While it worked well for a limited election in May, it might take more changes to make it work well for a dramatically larger countywide, statewide, and nationwide election in August and November.
Will local officials have the funds and the time to make a transition to a new system? If there are problems, as there can be with any new project, will it undermine the trust in our election system, which is already facing challenges? Will losing candidates blame the new system for their loss?
A time for vote-by-mail
All in all, even with some concerns, there is much to be said for a mail-in system, and it’s a step in the right direction. It has worked well where it has been used. Provisions are made for those who wish to — or need to — vote in person. It brings more voters into the system, and it gives them more time to study the ballot. It saves money, and it may keep us healthier during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the concerns over fraud and partisan favoritism seem overblown.
Genesee County Clerk John Gleason is a strong supporter of voting by mail and expanding the electorate. He said, “I’m not one bit concerned about how folks vote, as much as I am that they vote. Because of the horrific costs both in human life and personal possessions, I don’t feel voting is only a right. It is a gift. So, ‘Let’s Lift the Gift!’”
With any new idea, there may be challenges and problems. But it makes a lot of sense, especially in a time of COVID-19. We may be surprised how well it works.
But if it doesn’t work, we can always go back to dropping rocks into Grecian urns.
EVM P0litical Commentator Paul Rozycki can be reached at email@example.com.