All-Mail Elections

By Michael D. Hernandez | Vol . 22, No. 35 / September 2014


Did You Know?

  • At least 22 states allow certain elections to be conducted entirely by mail.
  • Legislators introduced 42 bills in 2013-2014 that related to vote-by-mail elections.
  • Although supporters of vote-by-mail emphasize its apparent convenience for voters, critics have cited concerns about its reliance on the U.S. Postal Service.

Voters more often are casting their ballots from home as states have increasingly allowed all mail elections to take the place of traditional precinct polling place voting. Voters in Colorado, Oregon and Washington need never visit a traditional neighborhood polling place. Instead, these three states administer all elections entirely through the mail. This trend has been quietly growing and is prompting legislators to consider whether all-mail elections are a good fit for their state or community.

For such elections, all registered voters in a jurisdiction receive a mailed ballot. A participating voter marks the ballot and places it inside a secrecy envelope or protective sleeve, which then is placed inside a separate envelope. This envelope is signed by the voter as an affidavit to confirm his or her identity and returned to an election office. Occasionally, voters in other states have used the same voting method that previously was afforded only to qualified absentee voters. At least 22 states have provisions that allow certain elections to be conducted entirely by mail.

Pros and Cons. Supporters of all-mail elections say allowing a person to cast a vote from the comfort of his or her home boosts convenience and helps people avoid wait times at polling places. The voter also can take as much time as needed to thoroughly examine the ballot. Elections administrators say all-mail elections reduce the costs of recruiting and training workers for polling places; it also frees them from the sometimes challenging task of finding a suitable polling location. Some rural jurisdictions appreciate the flexibility all-mail elections provide local governments. They no longer need to devote resources to the infrastructure and personnel required to administer an election at traditional in-person voting precincts. These vote-by-mail elections have slightly increased turnout for special elections and some municipal elections that often fail to garner attention from voters and the media.

Opponents of all-mail elections say the voting method weakens the traditional civic experience of voting with neighbors at a local school, church or community polling place. They maintain that vote-by-mail’s cost savings are largely nullified by the expenses to print and mail ballots to each registered voter in a jurisdiction. Although all-mail elections increase turnout in special and small elections, they have not successfully encouraged voter participation in larger general elections. Finally, opponents say all-mail elections do not provide the level of security and voter confidence inherent in polling place voting. They contend that ballots can be lost at any stage of the vote-by-mail process, that such a system relies on an already strained U.S. Postal Service, and that voters outside a polling place can be more easily coerced into selecting candidates and measures they do not support.

State Action

Colorado, Oregon and Washington are the only states that administer all elections entirely by mail. Other states permit vote-by-mail in certain elections, such as special elections, municipal elections, when a candidate is unopposed, or at the discretion of the county clerk. The kinds of jurisdictions that use all-mail elections vary. Some states have relied on the voting method to address a shortfall in elections resources. In Idaho, for example, a county with a precinct that has no more than 125 registered voters can use all-mail elections. Hawaii, which has some of the lowest turnout rates in the country, has sought to increase voter participation by allowing jurisdictions to use vote-by-mail for local and special elections.

Costs. Some states and jurisdictions that have moved to all-mail elections have noted significant savings because they no longer need to spend money for recruitment, training and pay for polling place workers. When Montana considered an expansion of vote-by-mail to administer all elections in 2011, the state’s association of clerks and recorders estimated the move would save taxpayers $2 million each election cycle. In Colorado, a county survey estimated that costs in 2010 would have amounted to $1.05 less per registered voter, a savings of about 19 percent.

However, some of the savings from administering an election entirely by mail are offset by an increase in postage costs for each registered voter to be mailed a ballot. Since Americans are highly mobile, the task of ensuring voter registration rolls are updated becomes even more essential in an all-mail election.

Security. The secure delivery of ballots is a key concern about all-mail elections. Academic research has found absentee ballots can be lost in transit for a variety of reasons, including ballots requested but not received, ballots transmitted but not returned for counting, and ballots returned for counting but rejected. This loss of votes could affect a close election.

Some jurisdictions have offered voters the use of ballot-tracking systems that allow a person to follow where his or her ballot is in the delivery and counting process. In addition, some jurisdictions provide ballot drop boxes to address voters’ concerns that ballots might not be returned in time to be counted.

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