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New York Times Opinion: Voting at Home Will Help Save Our Democracy
Author: Phil Keisling and Sam Reed
Posted: September 19, 2018

Read the original story in The New York Times.

The single best way to increase voter turnout?

Abolish the polling place.

A century ago, the direct election of senators sounded audacious, too. But in six states, it’s already true that more than 12 million voters don’t need to traipse to polling places on Election Day or apply for absentee ballots.

The U.S. Postal Service delivers our ballots automatically, several weeks before each election. Voters can mail their marked ballots — sometimes even postage paid — or take them to one of hundreds of official ballot collection sites.

Since most voters choose the latter option, vote-at-home is a more accurate label than vote-by-mail. At many locations, voters can also receive replacement ballots, update their voter registration and get language or other assistance. For those so inclined, some sites still have voting booths.

Oregon rolled out its system in 1998 after voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure. Washington finished its county-by-county approach in 2012, while Colorado’s first vote-at-home election took place in 2014. Voters today also enjoy this system in 27 of Utah’s 29 counties and more than 40 counties in North Dakota, Nebraska and California.

Oregon and Washington weren’t battleground states in 2016. But even so, had every state matched our 80 percent turnout of active registered voters, 15 million more votes would have been cast nationwide.

Vote-at-home shines even brighter in lower-turnout midterm and primary elections. Both Oregon and Colorado exceeded 70 percent turnout in 2014 among registered voters, compared with the national average of 48 percent.

In the 41 states where most ballots were cast at traditional polls during the 2018 party primary cycle, the median turnout rate was a paltry 22 percent. In vote-at-home states, it was 38 percent.

Numerous studies reveal what’s intuitively obvious about these additional voters. Automatically sending every voter a ballot shows little to no turnout effect among already motivated partisans. The real beneficiaries are younger and less partisan voters, many of whom feel little allegiance to either party.

Vote-at-home’s power derives from it being an opt-out rather than an opt-in election system. Election Day realities for other voters — bad weather or traffic jams, work schedules and family obligations — don’t thwart our voters in exercising their most fundamental of rights.

Polling place lines? Gone. Photo ID laws? Rendered moot. Election integrity is ensured by checking every voter’s signature on the return envelope against voter registration records.

Recounts in close elections are far more credible because they are based on paper ballots directly marked by voters rather than software code or machine-generated receipts. Scarce taxpayer dollars aren’t needed to buy expensive, supposedly next-generation voting machines, which will cost an estimated $100 million in Ohio alone.

A well-designed vote-at-home system saves tax dollars, even after postage costs and staffing ballot-return and voter-assistance facilities. A recent Pew study of Colorado’s first vote-at-home election, in 2014, found a cost savings of approximately $6 per voter.

The vote-at-home system gives voters more time and flexibility to study all the candidates and issues, including down-ballot races. They can cast more informed ballots while creating new democratic rituals, joining friends to drop off their ballots or voting with children and family members around their dining room tables.

Ah, yes — but isn’t such a system an open invitation to fraud and coercion?

While election mischief is certainly possible in any system, Oregon has had only two dozen cases after 20 years and 100 million mailed-out ballots. None have been organized, much less consequential. Washington and Colorado’s experiences are similar.

Remember, too, that nary a whiff of meaningful fraud occurred in the fiercely fought 2016 election, in which a record 33 million Americans voted with mailed-out ballots.

We’d argue there are far bigger dangers to election integrity in the single software hack that might affect thousands of votes, or the paperless votes that can’t be properly recounted, than in the would-be election thief who must risk years in prison for every forged or coerced ballot.

Consigning the traditional polling place to the same electoral scrap heap as hanging chads and vulnerable voting machines won’t be easy.

Many will continue to confuse a familiar — and to some, beloved — ritual of American democracy with its essence, which is voter participation.

Blind partisanship is an even bigger problem. Each of us has faced fierce criticism from our respective party colleagues for promoting a reform that would supposedly advantage our partisan foes. And within each major party are factions that clearly prefer low-turnout elections, especially in party primary contests.

At times, we both miss the traditional polling places. But giving up those Norman Rockwellian memories — real or imagined — of crunchy autumn leaves and smiling neighbors is a meager price to pay for a more inclusive system.

When every voter receives — and a lot more cast — a ballot, the more democratic we make our society. When more of us participate, we’re better able to hold our politicians — and ourselves — accountable.

Let’s get vote-at-home in place in all 50 states. It’s not the only solution, but it’s an important one to help revitalize our democracy, which for far too many Americans has devolved into a spectator sport.

Phil Keisling is the director of the Center of Public Service at Portland State University.