On the Oregon Trail

Oregon's statewide vote-by-mail system remains unique -- for now. But with little fanfare, liberalized absentee balloting laws elsewhere have prompted a steady expansion of mail voting. In the process, popular support is growing, from the ground up. States are following the gradualist pattern of expansion first set in Oregon. Laws permitting at-will absentee registration in dozens of states, and permanent absentee registration policies in California and elsewhere, are expanding the pool of voters who know and like the process.

Meanwhile, in Arizona, Colorado, and Washington, municipalities and counties have won the option to run all vote-by-mail elections for various contests. More local election administrators are opting for mail balloting to save money and simplify the process. Oregon eventually reached a tipping point of popular support that pushed the entire state to vote by mail; most observers think Washington state has now reached the same point, and other western states are close behind.

This election year may turn out to be the catalytic moment for the expansion of mail voting. Pressure from looming Help America Vote Act (HAVA) and state-level compliance requirements, combined with the continued headaches associated with implementing and securing electronic voting systems, are provoking registrars and election officials in many states to advocate switching to a system that simplifies the process, saves money, and addresses major logistical and security concerns. Meanwhile, for the first time, advocates are organizing nationally and providing cross-state support and coordination for efforts to spread mail voting. Given the ground-level trends, vote-by-mail proponents feel the wind at their backs.

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Electoral Quakes

California represents the biggest and least noticed expansion of absentee balloting. The turning point for the Golden State was 2001's enactment of permanent no-excuse absentee voting. Between 2002 and 2005, use of mail voting shot up statewide by more than a million votes, with absentee ballots accounting for 27 percent of votes cast in 2002, 33 percent in 2004, and 40 percent in 2005's special election. As use has expanded especially quickly in liberal counties, absentee voting's traditional Republican tilt has diminished. (The GOP-Democratic share of the absentee ballot vote was 47 to 41 percent in 1992; in 2005 it was 41 to 41 percent.)

While voters value the convenience, registrars actively encourage absentee voting to relieve administrative costs. “The voters are flocking to voting by mail in droves,” reports Elaine Ginnold, registrar of voters for Alameda County, population 1.5 million, which includes the cities of Berkeley and Oakland. Absentee ballots accounted for 36 percent of Alameda's votes in 2004 and 47 percent in 2005's special election.

A state law passed in 2004 requires that electronic machines be equipped with paper trail printers for contemporaneous ballot verification by the voter. Counties across California had already procured machines that lacked such printers, and this year the secretary of state's office took too long to certify new machines for several counties to complete the procurement process in time for June. (“It's $12.7 million down the toilet,” remarks Ginnold, referring to 4,000 noncompliant Diebold machines sitting in a warehouse in Alameda County.) Meanwhile, a lawsuit filed this year by California voters and activists seeking to block use of Diebold equipment in the June primary reflects the continued unease electronic machines inspire among significant numbers of voters.

Absentee ballots could well surpass 50 percent of the total California vote share in November. Ginnold sees 60 percent mail voting -- which California might reach by the 2008 election -- as a tipping point, when popular support will finally prompt either a ballot initiative to make the state all vote by mail or the reticent state legislature to give counties the option to run all-vote-by-mail elections. Either option, Ginnold says, would lead to universal vote by mail statewide. “I think what happened in Oregon is eventually going to happen here.”

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Going National

Oregon's neighbor to the north, meanwhile, is set to attain all vote-by-mail status imminently, having granted counties the option of choosing comprehensive vote by mail. Permanent-registration absentee balloting was first introduced in Washington state for disabled and elderly voters in the mid-1980s. It was expanded as an option for all voters, with no excuse required, early in the 1990s. “Many counties started having 75 to 85 percent of their voters choosing it,” recalls Sam Reed, Washington's Republican secretary of state and a longtime proponent of vote by mail. “So last year I requested a bill to allow counties to exercise an option to go all vote by mail.”

So far 34 out of 39 counties have opted for the system, and King County, encompassing Seattle and a full third of the state's registered voters, will likely do so by mid-2007. Most observers predict the remaining four counties will follow suit, and that by 2008, Washington will be the second state in the country to conduct all statewide elections by mail.

Until this year, no national advocacy outfit existed to help accelerate such absentee voting trends and leverage them to boost support for all-vote-by-mail systems. Political consultant Adam J. Smith has stepped into the organizational breach with the Portland-based Vote By Mail Project. Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury serves on its board, and the outfit receives institutional and financial backing from the National Association of Letter Carriers (for obvious reasons, a major proponent of mail voting).

“We're going to support the whole continuum of vote by mail,” says Smith, “from no excuse permanent absentee registration, to county option vote by mail, to statewide vote by mail. The natural progression seems to be you need to introduce the issue to people and give them the opportunity to vote this way, and inevitably the majority of people will decide they like it better.” States in his sights include not only California but also Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico -- all places where liberalized absentee laws have sparked expanded use of mail balloting in recent years. Meanwhile, the recently formed Progressive Legislative Action Network is also planning to push for liberalized absentee and universal vote-by-mail laws.

Recorders in Arizona's two biggest counties estimate that 60 percent of their ballots for the 2006 midterms will be cast by mail. Phoenix and Tucson will also be holding all-vote-by-mail local elections. Meanwhile, a movement to put a statewide vote-by-mail initiative on the 2006 ballot was born when Rick Murphy, an Arizona Republican businessman, lost a congressional primary challenge in 2004 to Christian right darling Trent Franks. “It became quite obvious to Rick that the system was broken,” says Fred Taylor, state director of Your Right to Vote and Murphy's partner in the vote-by-mail ballot initiative. “With a very small minority of the voters, you can win a primary election when there's such a low turnout. Rick wants to see a system that boosts engagement and dilutes the power of interest groups.”

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It's still early to gauge Murphy and Taylor's prospects in Arizona, but Colorado's experience in 2002 amply illustrates the pitfalls of moving too quickly for statewide change. That year, Democrat Rutt Bridges campaigned for a ballot initiative to make the entire state all vote by mail at a time when counties did not have the option to use the system and voters generally lacked experience with it. Like the majority of ballot initiatives on any issue in any election, it failed. Bridges now reflects that states should follow a more gradualist strategy for achieving vote by mail, something Colorado has demonstrated since the 2002 loss.

Beginning in 2004, counties gained the option to run all nonpartisan elections by mail in Colorado. This year, as in California, federal HAVA requirements for voting machine standards and accessibility are putting a crushing bind on county election officials and provoking requests -- initiated by Denver County in February -- for waivers to run vote-by-mail elections.

According to a survey of election clerks and counters, counties representing more than 80 percent of the voters in Colorado support switching to vote by mail for the midterm elections to avoid the regulatory chaos of HAVA compliance. If granted by the legislature, these would be onetime emergency waivers, but the record in other states demonstrates that further experience with mail voting invariably boosts public support for expanding the system.

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Electronic Hell

Thirty states have spent more than $300 million since 2002 in federal funds to replace punch-card and lever machines with updated voting technology. Certainly there are places where the shift to direct recording electronic (DRE) systems occurred early, went smoothly, and met with general public satisfaction. And, as defenders of electronic voting technology like Ohio State's Daniel Tokaji emphasize, DRE machines do constitute a net improvement over punch-card and lever voting in terms of promoting accessibility and lowering miscount rates. But overall, the process of implementing the system in localities across the country has been marred by more difficulties than most could have imagined, contributing to a debilitating crisis of public confidence in electronic voting technology.

A 2004 North Carolina election for state agricultural commissioner, which collapsed in the wake of a major DRE programming glitch in Carteret County, served as a rallying cry for critics of electronic voting. Last December, election officials and computer experts in Florida's Leon County tested machines provided by Diebold and showed that election results could be manipulated from within the Elections Office with relative ease -- and with no one knowing. Diebold responded by cutting off any communication with the county elections supervisor who'd instigated the test. Primary elections this March in Texas and Illinois, where DRE machines were used for the first time on a large scale in many localities, were the latest to be marred by major glitches in the tabulations, due to both machine errors and inadequate poll-worker training.

Also in March, Maryland made the stunning decision to dump its $90 million investment in Diebold machines due to the lack of a paper-auditing trail that could facilitate recounts. The paper-trail issue is a key fulcrum for organized resistance to electronic technology. Twenty-five states now have requirements for voter-verified paper audit trails (VVPAT) like the one in California, which are provoking major bureaucratic complications as officials attempt to graft printing technologies on to pre-existing electronic machines.

Problems with compliance provide the context for lawsuits against electronic voting machine vendors in five states beyond California. Meanwhile, a lobbying coalition of DRE skeptics gathered on Capitol Hill the first week of April to push for Democrat Rush Holt's bill mandating VVPAT for all electronic machines, programming that allows for independent audits, and hand-counted verification for 2 percent of all ballots cast.

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HAVA Heart

As Tokaji himself has demonstrated, grafting VVPAT technology on to existing electronic systems is not only proving to be cumbersome and logistically problematic, it also doesn't provide the panacea to security concerns that advocates think it does. VVPAT provisions heighten the complexity of the voting process, and hand-count audits of select ballots have proven to be enormously time-consuming for election officials in places like Nevada, where it has been attempted.

Unfortunately, the response to these dilemmas by many election experts and consultants, invested as they are in the push to “make HAVA work,” has been to try to reform electronic voting by plunging ever deeper into the logistical weeds of DRE compliance. Speaking at an American University conference on election reform held in late March, Tokaji listed at least four different teams of researchers and consultants, spanning various universities as well as the National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Sciences, who would be monitoring the 2006 elections and proposing further reforms.

HAVA has spawned a whole techno-academic-industrial complex. At the same conference, voting security expert Avi Rubin of ACCURATE (A Center for Correct, Usable, Reliable, Auditable, and Transparent Elections) proposed a truly daunting array of new reforms to ensure the integrity of electronic voting, from rendering all electronic systems interoperable and their coding open source, to mandating regular “threat analysis, code review, architectural analysis, and penetration testing” -- so as to ensure that the system “can be trusted to the same degree as critical military, medical, and banking systems.”

But this endless regress, reminiscent of Mad Magazine's “Spy vs. Spy,” may only be leading experts and officials deeper into electronic Rube Goldberg territory and further away from the basic election reform principles HAVA was meant to address in the first place. And this reality is a big part of the context for the expansion in the ranks of officials and voters on the ground, in state after state, who are coming to prefer a simpler, lower-tech balloting method -- snail mail.

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Back to the Future

The local and county-level stirrings in Colorado, Arizona, and California are precisely what the Vote by Mail Project hopes to identify and catalyze nationally. But chicken-and-egg questions about process and political culture linger: Does vote by mail work in Oregon and Washington because it's a universally desirable system or because the Pacific Northwest's historic tradition of clean elections allows it to work? Is vote by mail a desirable alternative for, say, a state like Ohio or Illinois -- or might it provide new opportunities for fraud and suppression in states lacking clean civic cultures?

There's no real consensus among election experts on this question, but the record of expanded mail balloting in California, Colorado, and elsewhere is virtually free of fraud or major glitches. Leading critics of mail voting, like Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, cite the heightened potential for vote buying in the mail-voting process, given the lack of a truly secret ballot. (Gans can, indeed, point to a local vote-buying scandal involving absentee ballots in 2003 city elections in northern Indiana.) But Oregon, Washington, and California have not reported any vote-buying incidents during the years that vote-by-mail use has expanded there, and sustaining such fraud on a large scale without detection would likely be prohibitively difficult. Moreover, to the extent such dangers and potential unknowns remain troubling, the gradual, locality-by-locality expansion of vote by mail thus far will help observers detect problems and make proper adjustments before a system is implemented across the board in a given state. “We're not comparing this against ‘the perfect system' -- that doesn't exist,” Adam Smith points out. “Possible problems that might arise can be addressed through best practices.”

Proponents note the procedural safeguards built into the Oregon system -- most importantly a full registry of digitized signatures that election officials cross-check against voters' signatures on ballot envelopes -- that neither exist in the traditional system nor depend for their effectiveness on the honesty and civic virtue of voters. “There are a number of ways to make vote by mail more secure than polling places,” says Ann Martens, Secretary of State Bradbury's communications director in Oregon. “Our county elections officials are trained by former state police forensics experts in handwriting analysis … [The signature cross-checking] goes through a number of levels where it's either accepted or we eventually contact the voter.”

Indeed, the time and ability that vote by mail affords officials to actually contact voters about questionable ballots address a more typical progressive election concern than voter fraud -- the prospect of indirect voter suppression by politicized election officials applying deliberately onerous standards to targeted demographics. What if a vote-by-mail official in, say, Ohio, was tempted to reject a significant number of ballots on spurious grounds that the envelope signature didn't match the digitized registration signature? “Checking the signatures is such a process, involving so many workers, it would be really hard to do something like that,” says Smith. “Even if you could systematically weed out certain groups, all you're going to do at that point is not in fact disqualify those ballots but force people to prove that they're actually who they say they are. So there are ways to safeguard against that.”

Advocates hasten to highlight the real-world polling-place scenarios that have played out in elections past, where perfectly legal neglect and shortchanging of resources on the part of election officials led to logistical bottlenecks in various localities -- leading, in effect, to de facto voter suppression. The prospects of such Ohio-style scenarios recurring in future elections would be eliminated with vote by mail -- as would the dangers, posed by electronic voting, of a logistical screw up or security breach without the capacity for a recount.

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Another criticism of vote-by-mail systems (also voiced in opposition to early voting provisions) is that the greatly expanded period for voting leads to “differentials in knowledge” among voters. Some might send in their ballot a week and a half prior to Election Day, and an ensuing dramatic event or development may change the dynamics of the race, leaving those early voters unable to change their decisions. But any voting date, whether it lasts one day or two weeks, is arbitrary, and may occur immediately prior to major occurrences that would have changed the electoral result in retrospect. And to the extent that a longer period for voting discourages the late-breaking artificial gimmickry and vicissitudes of political campaigns (as transmuted through media narratives and political advertising), that's more of a plus than a minus. Certainly Oregon's experience hasn't shown much voter discontent with the time differentials in voting, just as the state's experience hasn't revealed any major problems with fraud or logistics. Nor have citizens among the swelling ranks of mail voters in states outside of Oregon.

Indeed, the movement for mail voting represents a striking reversal in a nation that has always been infatuated with new technology. It is proceeding through firsthand experience, county by county, voter by voter, in a fascinating democratic rebellion against both the traditional complications of poll-site voting as well as insecurities associated with newfangled electronic technology imposed from above.

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For More Information

Oregon Secretary of State Elections Division (www.sos.state.
or.us/elections/). Also housed here: several independent evaluations of voting by mail. See: www.sos.state.or.us/executive/policy-initiatives/vbm/execvbm.htm.

BlackBoxVoting.org provides consumer protection for elections.

Voter Action.org opposes privatized, electronic voting systems.

VoteTrustUSA.org promotes election integrity nationally.

VoteByMailProject.org provides state-by-state updates on vote-by-mail options.

Electionline.org offers news and analysis on election reform.

FairVote.org promotes inclusion, turnout, fair practices.

League of Women Voters (lwv.org) provides citizen education.

Demos.org promotes broad participation and fair elections.

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