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By Wendy Underhill

When I read Michael Hernandez’ recent issue of NCSL’s elections newsletter, The Canvass, and saw the lead article was All-Mail Elections Quietly Flourish, I pulled out my notes from the Elections University, offered in June by the Washington State Association of County Auditors.

I’d been invited to Spokane to provide NCSL’s perspective on national trends in elections administration, and I was able to use that visit to learn more about how Washington is faring with its all-mail, all-the-time elections. (Washington was the second of three states to shift to mailing ballots to all registered voters, instead of providing Election Day polling places. Oregon was number one; Colorado was number three.)

I asked the assembled election officials what’s good and what’s not-so-good about running elections entirely by mail. Here are a few of the answers:

Good News:

  • No pollworkers are required. Some temporary help will likely be needed, but it is easier to hire and train a few good people for the month leading up to an election than to find many good people to serve at polling places all on one day.
  • Washington only runs one kind of election: vote-by-mail. In most states, election officials run a traditional Election Day operation and also a robust absentee, paper-based election and/or a separate early, in-person election system.
  • Turnout increases. While the “whys” of turnout are always tricky to tie down, small, local elections see participation increase when the ballot is automatically delivered to the voter.

Bad News:

  • What will happen if the U.S. Postal Service doesn’t function as well in the future as it does today? And even today, do all voters have a mailing address? Ask a young adult where they receive their mail—and if they have stamps on hand.
  • Some people worry that voters, who aren’t voting in the privacy of a booth, could be coerced to vote according to the wishes of their spouses, employers or others. (The auditors assured me they have a procedural fix for this, if the voter asks.)
  • Voters can and do lose their ballots. Replacing them—while certainly do-able—is still a hassle.

On balance, these folks love their system and wonder why more states don’t take the plunge. Perhaps one answer to that is that the research on costs, savings and security for elections run entirely by mail is not robust.  Calling academics:  Is this a juicy research assignment or what?

Wendy Underhill covers election policy for NCSL.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.

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