By Wendy Underhill
The May issue of NCSL’s elections newsletter, The Canvass, focused on all-mail elections. We gave a number of upsides to going all-mail (increased turnout, decreased costs) and downsides (potential for fraud, lost votes because mismarked ballots can’t be counted).
After it was published, I spoke with Natalie Landreth, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund and learned that I’d missed a “downside.” She gave me two good reasons:
“Reservations aren’t necessarily platted, and people often share P.O. boxes,” she says. That means the boxes aren’t private and ballots might not make it to the right person. She refers to this as a “leaky pipeline.”
Second, in Indian Country, “there’s the literacy problem. You have a dramatically higher proportion of people who qualify as ‘limited English proficient’ ” she says. “That is exacerbated because ballots are often written in college-level English.”
Both of these problems can affect other voters, too, not just Native Americans. Access to mail can be spotty in many rural areas, and the postal service may have trouble keeping up with urban voters who move frequently. And if literacy is an issue in your state, then all-mail elections aren’t for you.
That’s not to say that all-mail elections are a bad idea. Colorado, Oregon and Washington mail ballots to all registered voters, and in 19 other states, at least some elections are held by mail. I vote in Colorado, I vote by mail, and I find it convenient.
What I’ve learned from Landreth is that all-mail elections may be convenient for some voters (like me), but inconvenient for others—or that “convenience” is in the eye of the voter.
Wendy Underhill is NCSL’s program director for elections and redistricting.