New York Times: Sunday Dialogue: To Enhance Democracy, Expand Vote-by-Mail
To the Editor:
As a former secretary of state of Oregon (and chief elections official), I am glad courts have invalidated voter suppression laws cynically cloaked as “election fraud prevention.” Yet in winning these hard-fought battles, voting rights advocates are losing the larger war.
In 48 states, there’s a far more effective voter suppression strategy than requiring photo IDs at the polls. It’s requiring polling places, period.
That’s right: It’s time to abolish these Norman Rockwellesque temples of civic participation, where voters can commune with fellow citizens in that great ritual of American democracy.
Oregon voters did exactly this in 1998, when they overwhelmingly approved requiring election officials to mail ballots to all registered voters. Most mail back their ballots, though about 20 percent return them in person. A few even receive and vote their ballots at elections offices. Washington State fully embraced the system this year.
The result? Consistently high — often, the nation’s highest — turnout rates of registered voters. If all 50 states used this system, at least 20 million additional votes could be cast in most national elections, and perhaps 50 million more in primary elections.
What about fraud? Coercion? Stolen ballots? Other election mischief? After tens of millions of ballots cast, the actual incidents in Oregon — and then, only of individual voter fraud — can be counted on two hands.
In November 2010, just two states exceeded 70 percent turnout of their registered voters: Oregon and Washington. Key states that didn’t break 50 percent include Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Indiana, New York and Texas.
The Oregon system’s potential is even greater in primary elections, where there is only a 15 to 20 percent turnout in most states.
Of course, there is no one “cure” for all that ails American democracy. But in terms of a reform that’s simple, familiar and powerful, automatically sending all American voters their ballots — without their needing to ask for them — is a great place to start.
Portland, Ore., Oct. 15, 2012
The writer directs the Center for Public Service, Mark O. Hatfield School of Government, Portland State University.
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