All-Mail Elections Need to Go

March 2021 Update

The 2020 election is well behind us, but Trump’s big lie about election fraud is unfortunately still very popular among the Republicans. Now Republicans in a bunch of states are making a big push to pass a wide variety of bills blatantly aimed at voter suppression. I want to be extremely clear here: I do not support this in any way.

I still prefer in-person voting to all-mail voting, but I am totally in favor of dramatically expanding early voting, adding many more polling places, and generally removing obstacles to voting. I still think universal mail-in voting suffers from the problems listed below, but I strongly denounce any and all attempts to artificially limit access to voting.

August 2020 Update

With mail-in voting becoming a much larger issue nationwide in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I want to briefly re-visit this topic.

Given the health risks of assembling in large groups and the need to take extreme measures to combat the pandemic, I am fully supportive of using widespread mail-in ballots to mitigate public health risks.

I also want to make it very clear that I am in no way agreeing with Donald Trump’s characterization of mail-in voting as somehow rife with fraud and leading to an “illegitimate” outcome. That is garbage and obviously nonsense with absolutely no basis in reality.

That said, I do still have a number of issues with all-mail elections (outlined below), and my preferred solution to make voting equally accessible to all in normal circumstances would be to dramatically increase the number of polling places and make election day a national holiday. No one should have to wait in line for hours in order to vote. Obviously though, we are not living in normal times, so we cannot rely on normal solutions.

[end of updates, original post follows]

As another Election Day trudges along, I would like to take a few moments to rant about an incredibly stupid aspect of election administration here in Washington State: The all-mail election.

There are actually a number of things that I think are idiotic about the way we run election in this country generally and this state specifically, but for now I’m going to stick to the topic of all-mail ballots. Here are the six reasons that all-mail voting is inferior to polling-place elections, with some totally random “Christian” art thrown in to keep things visually interesting.

1) Your all-mail voting means many voters no longer have a secret ballot.
When multiple voters live together (e.g. husband and wife, older children living at home, etc.), all ballots are mailed to the home and accessible by whoever happens to check the mail. There is literally nothing to stop a controlling husband/father from forcing his electoral preferences on all other members of his household. With physical polling places, this is not an issue since each person goes into the private voting booth alone.

2) All-mail voting encourages participation from people who don’t care.
Super-White Baby JesusGetting off your butt, driving or walking to the nearest polling place, waiting in line, and casting a ballot at a physical polling place requires at least some small degree of “giving a crap.” With all-mail voting, you never even have to leave your house to cast your vote. Frankly, I don’t really want people casting a vote if they can’t be bothered to expend the minimal effort required to go to a polling place twice a year.

3) All-mail voting provides more opportunities for lost, stolen, or damaged ballots.
Ballots are all mailed out on a predictable date, which means anyone whose mailbox is not secure could have their ballot stolen before they even have a chance to fill it out. After you fill your ballot out and drop it in the mail, there’s a chance that it gets lost in the mail and fails to make it to the county elections administrators, or caught in a piece of mail-sorting equipment, rained on, or otherwise damaged to a point where one or more of your votes are unreadable. Granted, this risk is small, but with physical polling places, the risk is zero since you get the ballot, fill it out, and drop it off with election officials all in the same building.

4) All-mail voting allows candidates undue influence “at the polls.”
On the day I received my ballot, my mailbox also contained political ads for two or three candidates running for various local offices. Why should the candidate with the money to send out a mailer and the luck of good timing be allowed to have an advantage like that over his or her opponent? With physical polling places, this is not an issue since candidates are not permitted to campaign or have any campaign materials at the location where people are actually casting their votes.

5) All-mail voting drags out Election Day.
Rapture FantasyWashington State’s current system merely requires that mail-in ballots be postmarked by election day. This means that election officials won’t have all the ballots in-hand to count until days or even weeks after Election Day. We could instead require ballots to arrive at the county election office by Election Day, but then we would risk disenfranchising people whose ballots were somehow delayed in the mail through no fault of their own. With physical polling places, all the ballots can be counted on Election Day, then the election is over.

6) All-mail voting wastes paper.
In addition to the ballot itself, inside the envelope containing my ballot for today’s election, there was a security envelope, a mailing envelope, a small flyer describing new congressional districts, and another listing off ballot drop box locations. Compare this to a physical polling places, where all that needs to be printed is the ballot. Let’s assume that the three envelopes and two small flyers weigh a total of one ounce. Multiply that by the 3,851,274 registered voters in Washington State, and you’re talking about 240,705 pounds (120 tons!) of wasted paper per election.

So, there you go. If I were Secretary of State, one of my top priorities would be to eliminate all-mail voting in Washington. It’s just a bad idea, and the problems it introduces far outweigh any perceived benefits.

P.S. (These arguments should not be construed to be making a case against legitimate absentee ballots. If you aren’t going to be physically present in your voting district on Election Day, or you are physically incapable of traveling to a polling place, you should of course still get to vote.)



    So let me offer a counter (since I really like all-mail balloting and think it’s plenty secure compared to the alternatives):

    1. Yes, there’s a loss of the secret ballot in some cases. I don’t worry about it much, though, since you’re talking about a handful of dominionists. I would note that your argument has parallels with one of the central arguments against women’s sufferage — that the husband would command the wife to vote his way. But I do acknowledge the secret ballot is less secret. If you wanted a truly secret ballot, you’d ban the absentee ballot outright. (And that would include sub ballots. I mean, a CO could well insinuate to subordinates that voting against the CO’s wishes would result in things becoming very uncomfortable.)

    2. This argument, to me, doesn’t wash. Take those judge races way downballot. Half the time I have no idea what to think about the candidates. Their voter guide paragraphs are basically “I want to be a judge” and “I’m a good lawyer, see?” In all likelihood I will never actually encounter one of these judges. Should I disqualify myself from voting because I am underinformed? In general, I don’t think there should be an “effort” threshold to determine whether someone votes or not. The process should be simple. Throwing up barriers, anyway, disenfranchises people who may not be able to make the effort due to physical reasons (the elderly, the infirm, people with physical disabilities). Given how we treat that group as a whole in this society, I think closing off their voice entirely is a disaster waiting to happen.

    3. The risks are very small. Ballots are trackable. If you didn’t get yours, they’ll reissue it and void the previous one. Signature matching is honestly better than most forms of voter ID — it’s awfully hard to forge a signature when you have no idea what it looks like, where forging a driver’s license is far easier (see any college campus). OTOH, how many “missing ballot boxes” have we had in the last 10-15 years? Hell, there was a case of someone leaving a ballot box in their car for days in some major election recently. And mail-in ballots beat electronic machines without paper trails (as seen in 11 states) in terms of safety.

    4. The advantage to mailers with a ballot is minimal. It’s all about timing, and you can’t time it perfectly. What if you lay it aside for two weeks and only get to it when that day’s mail comes in with a different set of fliers? It’s all random chance. If there really were an advantage, then your mail would be nothing but fliers with the ballot.

    5. This is a fault of Washington’s system. Oregon requires ballots to be 8pm day of the election, and they’re done counting 90% of the ballots by 11pm. I’m with you here that we need to fix this, but this isn’t a problem of mail-in ballots — this is the problem of a screwed up system.

    6. An ounce of paper in a sunk cost delivery and return system, I would bet, is still environmentally better than having 3.8M people travel to the polls + all the setup/takedown of the polling places + volunteers, party observers, lawyers…. Remember, one reason we have vote by mail is it’s cheaper than the old polling place system.

    I think the only good arguments against the current WA system are the possible erosion of the secret ballot and the postmark-based deadline. But the former doesn’t seem like a huge worry right now (I mean, no more company towns), and the latter is easily fixed with a law change or an initiative (get on it, Tim Eyman). OTOH, vote-by-mail lowers the convenience bar, is as safe as any absentee ballot, and is certainly less hackable than the other electronic systems. The novelty will wear off — Oregon’s sufferage rate has dropped consistently since mail ballots were introduced — but I think it’s a plenty efficient system and on the whole better than what people in Florida are going through today (long lines, buggy machines, not enough paper backups, some systems without any paper trail).

    James Wash

    All mail also favors incumbents. Most challengers have less money, so must spend most just before election day. However, many have mailed by then. Also, new issues and information just prior to election day don’t count for all the early voters.

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