24 November 2010


On nonpartisan politics:

I've always been kind of bummed at the general low rate of participation in American democracy. During my lifetime, the voter turnout rate has been something along the lines of 50%-ish in presidential years and 35% in midterm years.  What does that say about the American electorate? That they are to passive/uninformed/disinterested to bother exercising a fundamental right that people in other places and times have fought and died for? Or is an indictment of our system -- that the government is so dysfunctional that people have written it off and given up?

However, here in my home state in the upper-left corner of the US, we have recently gone to an all-mail-in vote. (I think there's one county that still has traditional voting.) I was listening to the news yesterday and heard that the Secretary of State announced that, this year, 71% of all voters cast their ballots!  71%! That's just stunning.  Oregon, also vote by mail, is about the same, and pushes the 90% threshold in Presidential years.

Why doesn't every state do this?

It's so convenient: you fill out the ballot and send it in whenever you like. You can take the time to research the gajillion voter initiatives (when in doubt, vote no), carefully consider the down-ballot and judicial races, and talk it over with your family as you fill out your ballot. You don't need to stand in line, it doesn't matter if the weather sucks. There are no worries about voter intimidation or minority neighborhoods with inadequate numbers of voting machines/ballots. You don't need to worry about electronic voting machines miscounting your vote. You don't need to juggle work and/or childcare to make it to the polls during the specified hours.  

I admit that I kind of miss the civic ritual of going to the poll, but we've invented a new ritual in our family: I involve my kids and have them help me fill out my ballot, and talk about what we are voting for and why. I'm not sure they really understand it yet, but they will in time.

I suppose there are hypothetical concerns about fraud with mail-in ballots, but those have never really been substantiated as actually happening, and quite honestly even if they did occur, would be marginal in their effects compared to the fact that DOUBLE the number of voters actually cast their ballots in such systems.  How can such increased participation NOT strengthen our democracy?

I've noticed that republicans generally oppose measures that would tend to increase access to the ballot and favor those that would restrict it (voter ID laws, motor voter, etc). The thinking is that making it easier for poor/elderly/minority voters to vote will disproportionately help democrats. But that doesn't seem to be the case here. Despite being a "deep blue" state, we have had the last three major statewide elections (Gov x2, senate) be decided by a few thousand votes. There's real parity here, and while it's impossible to know what the state would look like under traditional voting, it certainly doesn't seem to have disadvantaged republicans too much.

Things change slowly, but more and more states are adding "early voting" and I wonder if ultimately most states will go towards voting by mail.  I really hope they do.


  1. I had no idea the voting percentage in vote-by-mail states was so high - that's interesting.

    I think same-day voting registration should also be allowed - I've lived in states that had it, and it never seemed to pose a problem.

  2. Most of my friends are permanent absentee voters, too. I kind of wonder if it limits access for people who don't have good housing security, though.

  3. There has to be some way for homeless folks to vote, too, but I'm sure mail in states have that figured out.

  4. I love advance voting. But I miss my "I Voted" sticker.

  5. Arizona allows anyone to vote with a mail-in ballot. You can also get on the Permanent Early Voter List and not have to request the ballot for each election. I think it is great. Like all voting, the fraud concerns are very minimal. (And that goes for claims of intimidation on both sides. I was involved in many years of "election protection" and it really should have been called "poll work education" because that is all we ever did.)

  6. The Republicans may feel that with King County's history of mail-in ballots (dead voters who mail in ballots? wow!), it may be a mistake to grant the Democrat-leaning members of the Dead-American community greater access to the vote. A nice thing about going to a polling place (and showing ID -- why is this not required in this country?) is that a walking voter is unlikely to be dead.


  7. Felix,

    The reason that ID is not required is that because voting is a fundamentalal right, and not all members of the population have IDs, so if you make voting contingent on possession of an ID then you disenfranchise a large contingent of the population. And for no good reason. In a system where millions of votes are cast, there has never been evidence of more than a few hundred fraudulent votes, and those are likely normative -- meaning there no reason to think that one party is more likely to commit fraud than the other.

    So which makes the democracy stronger: bringing millions of more people into the system, or excluding them in the name of eliminating a trivial number of dishonest votes?

  8. Thanks for responding, Dr. Shadowfax! Actually, bringing voters into the system does not necessarily make it stronger, just as removing them might not make it stronger -- you posit an unsupported assertion as a rhethorical question.

    But I still remember the previous elections for Patty Murray and for Christine Gregoire, and I recall quite distinctly muy fascination with that f***ed-up system: More votes than eligible voters in King County, the dead voted (but, obviously, their votes cannot be removed -- which ones would that be?), and I was entranced by the thaumaturgical abilities of the King County officials, who managed to find bundle after bundle of votes, until the D-loss turned into a D-win.

    When one cannot even tell what the current voters really voted for, the system is clearly in a failure mode, and adding more unverified junk will not rescue it.

    What prevents me, undre thsi system, from showing up at your polling station and stating that I am Dr. Shadowfax, and could I please have my ballot now? And half an hour later I'd be back home, at the seat of a large software manufacturer a bit south of you, and I'd cast a few more votes for co-workers who I know do not plan to exercise their voting right.

    The only person in whose name I would not vote would be I myself, being a foreigner (oh, and letting illegal aliens vote but legal ones not would piss me off massively, for obvious reasons).

    Remember: every fraudulent vote corresponds to a disenfranchised legal voter. That needs fixing first, and as a first step, I suggest ditching electronic voting. Paper ballots are readable with no sensors whatsoever, yay!

    The second step is an ID requirement. Yes, that will hurt the Democrats because half the ACORN-recruited voters will drop out, but there cannot be an objection unless the ends (winning) truly justify any means. Requiring ID is not a hardship; it took me two hours to get one, and had I been a US citizen, I could have done so by mail, for all love.

    Alternatively, take (electronic) fingerprints of every person that voted. Fingerprints are difficult to fake when taken under observation; don't link them to anything, just use them to ensure uniqueness of the vote. (Twins? To vote the same prints twice, I _would_ require differing IDs.)

    Is "One wo/man, one vote" really so unimportant a goal? Is your vote worth so little that we need not care about a few hundred up or down?


  9. You're dead wrong. It's not fear of the poor/elderly/minority voters helping democrats at the conservative fears, its fear of the dead/ineligible/non-citizens helping democrats. There's not enough safeties in place to prevent such fraud, and it's disconcerting to say the least when close elections such as the governor's race a couple of years ago are decided by counting votes until the democrat wins.

  10. Shadowfax, You cannot do business in this country without ID. You cannot cash a check, open a bank account, drive a car, hold a job, board a plane, enter a secure government building such as a courthouse. If a citizen of this country does not have an ID, I would seriously question their capacity to vote. You are correct in stating that it's a right, but it is NOT a right of a non-citizen to vote, and there is clearly a public interest in insuring that only qualified voters are allowed to cast a ballot. How, would you propose to accomplish this, without some sort of ID?

  11. Scruffy:

    My great-aunt no longer drives and rarely leaves the home. She has no need for a government-issued ID. She has not had one for years. I know poor folk who have never owned cars ro a checking account and have never gotten their driver's licenses. Their only need for an ID is to prove age to buy beer. (this is the cue for some commenter to make a snarky comment that old people and poor people are too demented.drunk to be entrusted with the vote; I'll not respond to that sentiment.) We've been using signature-check voter rolls for 200 years, and that's worked fine. Despite the (False) allegations of widespread voter fraud, it is an all-but nonexistent problem. And I know voter fraud -- I worked for Rostenkowski in IL-5 back in the day! But once the election officials drill down and audit, like they did in Minn in 2008, they find that the number of illegally-cast ballots is generally on the order of a couple of dozen out of a million cast. And again, those are normative -- it's not one party which is systematically voting with the dead (as they did in Chicago!), but random actors, not likely to benefit one party more than another.

    So the "Voter ID" requirement is designed to fix a problem that simply does not exist, with a burdensome requirement which would suppress the vote from some individuals.

    Back to the original topic, though, the all-mail-in ballot fixes many if not most of your objections are answered. Your ballot is delivered to you, and you control it, and can fill it out or not if you choose. No need for ID and minimal risk of fraud. The "dead voters" meme is as specious as the "felons" meme -- a couple of dozen random ballots at most, not systematically biased either way.