Stateline Story

Mailbox Replacing Ballot Box In Many States

  • June 26, 2002
  • By Greg McDonald
It started as a friendly contest between Oregon and Washington - which would be the first to have mail-in balloting for statewide elections in hopes of increasing voter turnout? Oregon won, and now the nearest polling place for most residents of that state is just a short walk down the driveway to the mailbox.

Washington doesn't seem to mind, though. Voters there still have a choice between going to traditional polling places or voting by mail. Because Washington voters have a choice, the state's election costs are much higher than Oregon, which no longer has the expense of keeping hundreds of polling places open on Election Day.

The advantage of choice, says David Elliott, assistant director of the Washington Elections Division, is it still allows people who enjoy the physical act of voting to do that.

"Some people are very engaged with the idea of going on election day and casting their ballot as a civic event, and we're not in favor of wiping that out...So we're trying our best to have a real choice for the voters here," says Elliot.

Twenty other states do the same, choosing to keep most polling places open and to allow voting by absentee ballot regardless of the reason.

The changes appear to have had little impact on overall turnout, even though Oregon officials claim that their May primary produced one of the largest turnouts in state history with 46 percent of registered voters participating.

What has increased significantly is the number of people voting by mail. In Washington's case, 70 percent of the votes cast in the most recent election was by absentee ballot, Elliott says.

Curtis Gans, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, says the increase in mail-in votes is not surprising because "people who want to vote absentee are already motivated voters."

"It is essentially for the convenience of lazy middle class people," Gans says. He calls no-fault absentee and all-mail voting "very bad policy" that eliminates secret balloting and diffuses the importance of voter mobilization because it allows voting to take place over twoto-three weeks instead of one day.

Oregon has been experimenting with mail-in voting at the county level since 1981. The procedure was used statewide for the first time in the 1995 special election to replace former Sen. Bob Packwood, who was forced out of office after he was accused of sexual harassment.

It is still the only state in the country where voters can elect state and local officials without ever leaving their homes. It's a distinction Oregonians are proud of.

"It's about efficiency and effectiveness, " says Oregon Election Operations Manager Scott Tighe. He dismisses critics who say all-mail and other convenience voting systems haven't provided the boost in turnout that was promised.

The bottom line for most Oregonians, he says, is that it's easy. "You know it rains a lot out here, and nobody wants to stand in line waiting to cast their vote," says Tighe. "Each state has the flexibility to conduct their own elections. The people of Oregon like vote by mail. That's why the voted it in (by 70 percent) and that's the system we choose to use."

Besides, Tighe adds, laughing, "We move around a lot out here, and there aren't that many old-timers - I mean traditionalists - left who prefer trudging to the polls in a rain or snow storm."