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February 13, 2014 11:12 AM The “No Lines” Solution to Long Election Lines

By Ed Kilgore

As we wonder whether the sensible bipartisan recommendations of the president’s “Lines Commission” will gain any real traction, WaMo Contributing Editor (and former Oregen Secretary of State) Phil Keisling reminds us once again in a piece at Governing that there’s one election reform available that makes the whole issue moot:

During the 2012 election, an estimated 10 million voters spent at least 30 minutes — and some of them many hours — waiting in line. Amidst contentious partisan accusations about “voter fraud” and “voter suppression,” perhaps we can’t expect more than a catalog of small to mid-sized fixes to build a better polling place.
However, the core problem with America’s election system - or, more accurately, with its 8,000 separately administered election systems - isn’t too-long lines or poorly run polling stations. The real problem is our insistence on polling stations, period, and the small-ball assumption that voting lines can only be shortened — rather than abolished entirely.

The way to abolish them entirely, of course, is to adopt a universal vote-by-mail system like those already utilized by Oregon, Washington, and—beginning this year—Colorado.

Universal ballot delivery fundamentally upends the election-administration universe. In 47 states, governments require registered voters to seek out their ballots, either by going to a polling place (refurbished or not) or by applying for an absentee ballot. Meanwhile, America’s three “voter-centric” states require the government to mail ballots to all registered voters.
By eliminating polling places and the need for so many election-day workers, Oregon taxpayers save millions of dollars each election cycle. Ballot processing and verification procedures — checking all signatures against voter registration records, which also renders moot the whole photo-ID debate — can be more uniformly applied than at the precinct-by-precinct level. Recounts… are based on individual paper ballots, not software code.
Creating such a voter-centric election system also significantly increases voter turnout, especially in elections where the absence of lines is the real problem. In the 2010 mid-term elections, Oregon and Washington ranked first and second in percentage of registered voters casting ballots. (Across all 50 states, the same turnout rates would have meant about 25 million more votes cast.) More dramatic still, party-primary turnout rates of 40 percent or higher in states with universal ballot delivery are double, even quadruple, the rates in most states.

I’d note that California utilizes a limited version of this system, allowing one to register as a “by mail” voter who will automatically receive ballots (and background materials on issues and candidates) by mail that can be cast by mail or in person, so long as the voter keeps voting. The percentage of California ballots cast by mail rose to 65% for primaries and 51% for the general election in 2012.

Voting by mail is obviously more convenient for most voters—particularly those who work on Election Day—but as Keisling points out, it also eliminates much of the chicanery attempted by local election officials with respect to in-person balloting, whether it’s done before or on Election Day.

And there are no lines between your kitchen table and the mailbox.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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