NCSL's The Canvass

Is vote-by-mail for your state?

Photo of someone dropping their voted ballot in a ballot drop boxAsk your local election officials the hardest part of their job. From NCSL’s many interviews with election administrators, it’s our bet that most will say it is the challenge of staffing polling places on Election Day. (See the interview below as an example.)  

Early voting can take some of the heat off Election Day and yet not solve staffing woes.

An evergreen issue, states have addressed those poll worker woes by:

  • Allowing teens to work the polls.
  • Permitting poll workers to put in just half a day since long hours are a disincentive.
  • Paying more per day—or not paying at all.
  • Using “super precincts,” also known as “combined precincts,” where two or more precincts share one polling location.
  • Shifting to vote centers, where any voter in a jurisdiction can vote at any polling place, reducing the number of polling places and therefore poll workers.

And some states see the poll worker shortage as a nudge toward considering moving to an all-mail election model. As voters’ kitchen tables replace polling places, the reliance on poll workers drops dramatically. In a vote-by-mail model, all registered voters receive a paper ballot in the mail, fill it out in their own time, seal it in a secrecy envelope, sign the outside envelope, and return it by mail or by dropping it off in a secured box or at an election office on or before Election Day.

Of course, it’s not all rainbows and lollipops.  Read below for the upside—and the downside—after a brief bit of history.


The idea was pioneered in Oregon in 1998, when a citizens’ initiative to adopt all-mail voting throughout the state was approved by 69.4 percent of voters. Since then, interest in all-mail elections has remained a quiet trend, peaking in recent years with as many as 21 states considering legislation in 2015 and 2016.

Now, two other states — Washington (2011) and Colorado (2013) — also automatically send all registered voters a ballot in the mail. Utah gives local jurisdictions a choice, and in the 2016 presidential election, over 86 percent of counties chose mail voting. California counties will be able to make that choice for themselves starting in 2018, after 2016 legislation authorized it.

Hawaii has had legislation relating to all-mail elections every legislative session since at least 2001, with 11 variations of those bills up for debate this year alone.

“Throughout this time, we’ve been watching the elections-by-mail experience of our sister states in the west,” Senator Gil Keith-Agaran (D-Hawaii), told The Canvass. “I think more policymakers and stakeholders interested in having a fair and efficient election system are becoming comfortable withPhoto of Hawaii Senator Gil Keith-Agaran conducting an entire election by mail.” Keith-Agaran is chair of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary and Labor and sponsor of SB 334, which, if enacted, would move the state to all-mail in 2020.  

Keith-Agaran reports that Hawaii now conducts three kinds of elections every time an election is needed: early in-person voting, no-excuse absentee voting (which is essentially voters choosing to vote by mail) and Election Day polls. “All four county clerks tell us it’s increasingly a challenge to locate election day polling sites and to find and train election day workers for those polling sites,” he says. Keith-Agaran expects to alleviate some of this burden and save on election costs over the long term under a vote-by-mail model, and perhaps more importantly, “We’re hoping that this will also support improving voter turnout for our elections.”

So is this just a western phenomenon, or do all-mail elections have staying power from sea to shining sea?

At least 22 states allow certain types of elections to be conducted by mail. In most cases, state law gives county officials the option to conduct certain elections by mail. These might be smaller elections, such as special elections or elections in sparsely populated areas or municipal elections. Of the states that are embracing all-mail, most, like Hawaii, already had a large part of the electorate choosing to vote by mail, and experimented with all-mail for small elections and gradually increased the kinds of elections that can be conducted by mail.

Should voters have to pay for a stamp? Colorado has mitigated this problem by engineering secured ballot drop boxes that do not require postage. Many drop boxes are sprinkled throughout every county and in some jurisdictions, voters can easily navigate to their nearest location using texting and mapping services from their phones. Well over half of Colorado’s voters use the drop-box option. Washington, where drop-boxes are common, is considering making it a penalty to tamper with them. King County, Wash., has piloted pre-paid postage, while Oregon and California are considering pre-paid postage legislation.  

The Upside

In addition to relying on fewer poll workers, proponents cite added convenience for voters and cost savings as justifications for a vote-by-mail model. With more time to think through and research options on the ballot, voters may make more informed choices. Mail voting may also help elderly voters by eliminating a trip to a polling place, college students who may not reside in their voting precinct and rural voters who may otherwise travel many miles to reach the nearest polling place.

Perhaps the strongest selling point is the potential cost savings from making a switch to an all-mail model. A cost study of Colorado’s model produced by The Pew Charitable Trusts following the 2014 general election showed average savings of 40 percent. While it cost counties $16 per voter in 2008, the 2014 election costs $9.56 per voter with a 98 percent reduction in the number of provisional ballots. The fiscal note on Colorado’s 2013 bill to shift to all-mail called for $1.5 million over the first two years in expenses, but $5 million in savings over the same period of time. And in a Utah Foundation report, Voting in Utah: Analyzing Current Practices and Future Options,  

The Downside

Photo of Maryland Representative Jeff Spiegelman

"While I am aware that other states use a vote-by-mail system, I still have concerns about the integrity of that election process,” says Representative Jeff Spiegelman (R-Del). “I am not convinced Delaware is ready to do away with the tradition of polling places and polling booths while voters practice their right and civic duty to cast ballots for their elected officials." That’s it in a nutshell. And here are yet more cons:

  • Voters are more susceptible to intimidation and coercion when ballots are out of the supervision of election officials. Absentee voters in Florida reported troubling—but not necessarily illegal—practices by candidates in the 2016 election who visited voters’ homes to “help” them fill out their ballots. More typically, worries focus on family members pressuring each other.
  • Similarly, “ballot harvesting,” where activists or political parties can collect voted ballots from voters, can be a concern for all-mail elections or in states with heavy absentee voting. Arizona’s legislature banned this practice last year, a decision that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • Once the ballot is cast, the voter does not have an opportunity to correct mistakes, whereas during in-person voting, the equipment will prompt the voter if there is an overvote or other problem. The “residual vote rate,” a measure of votes that cannot be counted in an election, has proven higher in all-mail elections than other elections.
  • The Bipartisan Policy Center published a report, The New Realities of Vote By Mail in 2016 pointing to challenges with the postal service. Even though all the mail ballots combined are only a drop in the bucket of USPS’s total volume, recent restructuring of the postal service has slowed down processing and delivery time of mail ballots.
  • Vote-by-mail states mostly rely on a robust signature verification process whereby the voter’s signature on the back of a mail ballot envelope is compared against signatures on file for the voter, with a multilayered adjudication process when questions come up. Communicating the integrity of mail ballots is more complex than other in-person voter ID methods for verifying identity. Public confidence may suffer if security mechanisms are not crystal clear, especially with on-going allegations of voter fraud and double voting.

Inquiring Lawmakers Want to Know…

Before making major changes to a voting system, legislators want to know how the change will impact, or be impacted by, certain other factors. Yes, it provides voters with more convenience—but that’s not the be-all, end-all. Here are a few other considerations relating to all-mail elections.

Turnout—One might conceptually draw a connection between all-mail elections and increased turnout, but academics have struggled to do so definitively. What’s largely agreed upon is that all-mail elections increase turnout in smaller elections. For instance, Utah cities conducting all vote-by-mail elections saw an average increase in turnout from 21% in 2011 to 38% in 2015, according to Voting in Utah: Analyzing Current Practices and Future Options. While Colorado, Oregon and Washington are high-participation states, research has shown all-mail elections to have little to no effect on turnout. Or at least that it’s not easy to draw the link.

Elections Technology—All-mail elections depend on paper ballots—that’s what gets mailed out. High-speed scanners that can process and count ballots in a centralized location are all but required to process these paper ballots. In some states, moving toward all-mail elections might mean switching to new technology. That can be a disruptive and costly endeavor.

Cost—Will vote-by-mail save money? Colorado saved money—but the calculation may be different from state to state. After potential up-front costs of investing in the required elections technology, extensive voter outreach, and poll worker training, most election officials expect all-mail elections to save states and counties money. Some of the saving come from reduced need for poll workers.

Timeline for election results—With an influx of mail ballots coming through election offices, internal systems for processing ballots may need to be rethought. Absentee ballots may need to begin processing well in advance of Election Day—even if the final count isn’t calculated until the end of that day. Without making a change in processing schedules, election night results might be slowed down. Each legislature can decide if envelopes can be opened and ballots scanned to speed up the final counting. 

In-Person Polling Places—Federal accessibility requirements require jurisdictions to still provide some in-person polling places for vote-by-mail elections, where voters with disabilities can vote securely and privately. (Paper is not an accessible option for many people.) All-mail states currently use vote centers for this purpose on Election Day and sometimes in the run-up to it.

Public Confidence—With all-mail voting, voters may wonder if their ballot really was received and counted. Ballot tracking tools such as Ballot Trace and BallotTrax can provide voters with real-time information about where their ballot is, similar to tracking a package at UPS. 

Permanent Absentee Voter Lists—Rather than move to all-mail elections statewide, legislators can consider adopting a permanent absentee voter list like eight states and the District of Columbia have done. Voters can opt to be on the list and from that moment forward, expect to receive an absentee ballot for every state election. 

Tradition—“A lot of people value the traditional election day polling system and the place going to the polls has in living out our individual civic responsibilities,” says Senator Keith-Agaran. Will exchanging the civic satisfaction of showing up to the polls on Election Day for more convenience and potential cost savings diminish the overall quality of the civic experience for voters? That’s for legislators to decide.


Image of a computer screen with a large blue check mark and the words"The Future of Elections" over itJoin us for a three-day conference where we will discuss the future of elections technology and how to pay for it. June 14-16, 2017 in Williamsburg, Va.we’ll bring together legislators, legislative staff, election officials, and election administration experts from across the country to cross-pollinate ideas about how to update our voting infrastructure in an era of limited resources and heightened security concerns. A primary goal of the conference is to connect legislators and staff with state and local election officials who live and breathe elections.

There is no registration fee for state legislators or legislative staff, and travel stipends are still available for state legislators. For questions, contact Amanda Buchanan (303-856-1467) or Wendy Underhill (303-856-1379).

This is the last week to reserve your hotel for NCSL's The Future of Elections: Technology Policy and Funding Conference, June 14-16 in Williamsburg, Va. If you've already registered or plan to attend, be sure to book your room by Friday, May 19.


Legislative action bulletin

Number of election-related bills introduced so far this year: 2,069

Number enacted: 114

Number sent to the governor (but not yet signed): 22

Number vetoed by the governor: 13

Number of states still in session: 31 and Puerto Rico

After a quiet few years, 2017 has seen several new bills enacted on the topic of voter ID. These bills will be addressed in-depth in a future issue of The Canvass. Perhaps predictably after a presidential election year, aspects of the presidential election process were also addressed by states, including the electoral college and requirements of presidential electors. States also looked at qualifications and filing requirements for candidates, filling vacancies, voter registration and the elimination of straight-ticket voting.

Stay tuned for more voter ID news and visit NCSL’s elections legislation database for more information on election bills introduced in legislatures this year. 

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Image of the "Business of Voting" industry review coverThe Business of Voting, released in March by the Wharton School.

This industry review looks at the structure of the marketplace for voting equipment (the part of elections technology where votes are cast and counted).

The report is “mostly descriptive,” says Matt Caulfield, a graduate assistant who was involved with the project from start to finish. “We wanted to highlight that a lot of the ills we see people talking about in the elections tech industry can be traced back in part to the structure of the industry itself.” Think of it as a compilation of basic industry facts.

For those in the elections profession, the findings aren’t surprising: the market includes just a few vendors. Industry growth potential is limited. (Think about: do we expect an increase in the number of elections?) The buying cycle is a dozen years or more. Innovation is lacking.

Wait. On that last point, opinions can differ. “This report starts with the assumption that technology is not moving at all, and that is an assumption that is not accurate,” says Kathy Rogers, from ES&S, the nation’s largest elections tech corporation. She points to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s website that lists newly certified systems to show that innovations are coming out regularly. Measuring “innovation,” it seems, may be in the eye of the beholder.

Even so, the description of the marketplace is helpful. Additionally, the report offers three strategies that are being/could be pursued. First, coalitions between jurisdictions can give buyers prices based on economies of scale and products based on shared expertise.

Second, open source software, which “proponents believe may catalyze the development of new competitive markets in voting systems solutions,” the report says. Already projects in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Travis County, Tex., are working toward the creation of publicly owned technology, which could be shared with other jurisdictions. Efforts at shared technology solutions outside of the actual vote casting/counting equipment are coming along too.

Third, the system for creating federal voluntary guidelines for elections systems can change (and are changing). In the future, certifying individual components of a voting system and developing interoperability standards could lead to a “plug and play” modular system. 

Perhaps other factors are at work, too. One may be a natural and in fact commendable small-c conservatism among election officials. Rogers says that her firm has a certified system, ExpressPass, that allows voters to make their selections on a tablet or phone at their leisure. Voters can print out their selections to take with them to a polling place as a cheat sheet, or ExpressPass can generate a QR code that will bring up their selections at the polling place. In either case, the voter can make changes as needed before submitting their voted ballot.

Adoption of the system has been slow. “Just like any new trend that comes on the market, there’s always some trepidation,” says Rogers. “Or maybe both parties will sit back and see how that tech may be an advantage or disadvantage to either party.”

 Federal dollars aren’t expected to be provided for equipment purchases again, as they were in the early 2000s. That means local jurisdictions and states must come up with the funding—and that is tough when they also have schools and police to fund.  

“Whether and to what extent could the government sow the seeds for innovation?” asks Greg Miller, of the nonprofit OSET initiative, which funded the Wharton report. Miller is clear there won’t be $3 billion in federal funding injected into the marketplace any time soon (as there was in the 2000s). Instead, he hopes that perhaps one-tenth that amount could “rejuvenate” the technology side of the marketplace, with work done at DARPA and the National Science Foundation on open source approaches to the key questions of the day.

From the Chair

Photo of Washington Representative Zack Hudgins

Representative Zack Hudgins chairs the State Government, Elections and Information Technology Committee in the Washington House. He represents the 11th Legislative District, which is one of the most diverse districts in the country. Hudgins proudly drives his 2002 Ford Ranger pickup with over 250,000 miles on it to the state capitol every day. He spoke to The Canvass on April 12.

Q: What is your overriding perspective when it comes to elections policy?

A: I think we get better government when we have better participation. When I think about elections laws and their impact, I want to make sure it’s about increasing access and increasing people’s voices in the process.

Q: What are some of the elections issues you are looking at in Washington?

A: My new favorite bill is Senate Bill 5472, by Senator Kirk Pierson. In the Senate it passed the chamber 49-0. It will increase the number of ballot drop boxes in the state. We are an all vote-by-mail state, so you have to put a stamp on your ballot or find one of these drop boxes to turn your ballot in. For the last few years, I’ve pushed to have more of these drop boxes available around the state. Some people refer to the stamp you need to put on the ballot to mail it a “poll tax.” I refer to it as a “hassle tax.” Younger voters too are less likely to use the mail, so a place to drop the ballot off makes it easier for them. We will increase that to over 250 new drop box locations with this bill if it’s signed into law. King County, which I represent, is the largest county in the state yet it only had 10 drop boxes in the whole county. It’s increased since then, but the trend is more ballots coming in through the drop boxes rather than the mail.

There are two other issues that we are working on that aren’t full resolved yet. First is voter registration and trying to standardize that process across the state to make it easier. We have different sets of laws and dates for when you can register online or in person and we are working with the Secretary of State to sync those up. We will continue to work on other registration issues like preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds, same day registration and automatic voter registration.

The other item we are working on and will continue to talk about is election dates. We have about four elections a year in Washington and I want to know if the election date affects turnout. Our state primary is in August and it typically has low turnout as people are likely on vacation. If we moved that date-would it increase participation? Also, we are looking at the date of our presidential primary and if we can sync it up with other states.

We’ve also got a good bill on transparency and reconciliation reports. After our extremely close governor’s race in 2004 that came down to 133 votes out of millions cast, the goal is to require ballot reconciliation reports so that every ballot is accounted for. Our bill would require the secretary of state to gather up the reconciliation reports from each county and compile them into a large report to start comparing counties.

We have all new members to the committee so we’ve been working through the issues this year and trying to get up to speed.

Q: What are you most proud of when it comes to elections in Washington?

A: I think we do a lot of great things in our elections in Washington. One of them is our voter pamphlet. It’s a great source of information and discussions on the various ballot initiatives that people will be voting on that year. I think vote-by-mail has worked out great as well. It really bumped up our voter turnout for a while and it’s a great way to give people flexibility when it comes to voting. 

From the election administrator's perspective

Brandon AbadieBrandon Abadie is the administrator of elections in the Clerk of Court’s office for East Baton Rouge parish, Louisiana. In Louisiana, the clerks are in charge of running Election Day, while the registrars of voters handle voter registration and absentee voting. East Baton Rouge has the most voters of any other parish in the state, with over 200,000 votes cast this past presidential election. Mr. Abadie spoke to The Canvass on April 18.

Q: How did you get into county and election administration?

A: I started working for the clerk back in 1995. Over the years I moved up through the organization and worked the elections as support. The administrator who was in the position before me retired in 2010 and I took over from there. After I got here, I realized this is my calling. I feel that everybody who is a registered voter should have the opportunity to vote. My main objective is to make sure we have good elections, we make sure everyone has the right to vote. I’ve taken it by the horns and I poured everything into it to make sure we succeed. I think we do a great job here in East Baton Rouge parish, and I think we do a great job in the state of Louisiana. I’m thrilled to be doing it.

Q: How did things go in 2016?

A: 2016 went very well, I thought. We always prepare more for presidential elections—always make sure we follow everything that’s going on to be prepared for any problems that might crop up. Turnout is a lot greater with presidential elections, which means more potential problems. I would say, it was my best presidential to date. I was pleasantly surprised. About 200,000 people voted in East Baton Rouge and nothing went wrong. We expected and prepared for the worst. And when it didn’t happen, it made it feel great. We had issues—everybody dues—but they were small, contained and we took care of them as they happened and nothing major was reported.

Q: What are some of the elections issues in East Baton Rouge parish?

A: Commissioners. [Editor’s note: poll workers are referred to as commissioners in Louisiana.] Getting people to work the polls. A lot of people have served as poll commissioners over the years as a public service and these days, people seem busier. We had 317 precincts with five total commissioners at each precinct for a total of 1600 workers needed on Election Day. It’s getting to the point where if something better comes up they won’t do the job.

 Don’t get me wrong: we have some great commissioners who always show up and do a great job for us. But on my books it shows 2,500 signed up and certified, but I can’t get to 1,600 on Election Day. It’s a constant battle for us since we are in charge of the Election Day process because the precincts need to be adequately staffed.

With all the other issues we cover to prepare for an election, getting it staffed is always the biggest challenge—and it’s getting worse. I don’t know what the magic solution is. Maybe it’s the number of precincts. Maybe “super precincts” are in the future. When you are looking at our problem, if we had fewer polls we could staff them better. I don’t know what the magic answer is, but I do know that it’s a conversation that needs to be had because it’s only getting worse. I’m open to discussing any possibilities to help us with this problem.

Q:  What are some of the elections issues at the state level in Louisiana?

A: I will tell you this: the secretary of state does a wonderful job here in Louisiana. They work with us and we work with them to try to improve the election process. The voting machines are getting older. It’s time to start looking at new voting machines and technology and I know that they are in the process of doing that. That’s the main issue at the state level.

Q: What are you most proud of when it comes to running good elections?

A: I’m most proud that all registered voters get to vote. All of our agencies work well together. The Registrar of Voters here in East Baton Rouge parish, the Secretary of State and the Clerk have to work together in order to make it work. Anything that would arise at the state level got communicated to us. We are proud to say (knock on wood) that we’ve had good elections and I don’t know of anyone who was denied their right to vote. I wish everyone would vote. So what I am most proud of is that we work hard, we make sure the polling places are staffed, and that they are open and ready to go for everyone on Election Day.

Q: What would you like state legislators to know?

A: I’d like them to know that my phone, my door is always open and I’m willing to work with them on anything because my main objective is to make sure the election process runs as smoothly as possible and that everyone gets the right to vote.

Worth Noting

  • Who knew Ranked Choice Voting was going to be a subject electioneers would finally talk about this year? The Canvass did so last month and Electionline Weekly wrote about it last week.
  • Speaking of ranked choice voting, the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center is working on a RCV tabulator that can be plugged into existing voting tech to do the counting for ranked choice voting. This new software isn’t yet EAC-approved. If and when it is, the RCV Resource Center plans to make it available to jurisdictions for free.
  • Just the Facts on Fraud. That’s what David Becker, of Election Innovation, wrote about last week from the Election Innovation blog. He’s rounded up the results of state-level inquiries including examples from Ohio, California, Tennessee and North Carolina. His take is that “very few cases of possible fraud have been found during post-election investigations.” Of course, zero is what we’re aiming for.
  • The OSET Institute’s blog sometimes provides good explainers on election-related topics. Here’s one on vulnerabilities relating to voter data.
  • The Pew Charitable Trusts sets the bar high for research on election administration. It’s most recent interactive tool, relating to electronic poll books, is yet another proof. It looks at key questions, including whether legislation is required prior to use and whether the EPBs will be locally networked or connected via the internet. (In case you are worrying: the EPBs do not handle vote casting and counting, so hacking them can’t effect election outcomes.)
    California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzales (D) has introduced AB 668 that, if passed, would put a measure on the June 2018 primary ballot asking for $450 million in bonding authority to create a fund counties can borrow from to pay for new voting equipment. Here’s the Sacramento Bee write-up.
  • Does it feel better to know that the U.S. is not alone on the world stage, in regard to campaign tampering? We all heard that campaign documents from France’s president-elect Emmanuel Macron were hacked and released. According to Around the World in Election Interference, in The Atlantic, “it’s long been popular for countries to put their thumbs on the scales of others’ votes.” (Thanks for the tip, Verified Voting.)
  • NCSL’s Amanda Buchanan just created a LegisBrief on Ten Tips for Using a Task Force to Modernize Elections
  • Big news for two of the election world's key people: Tammy Patrick has moved from the Bipartisan Policy Center to the Democracy Fund (a foundation that supports NCSL's elections work and many other election administration projects), and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission's Commissioner Christy McCormick will serve on the president's new Advisory Commission on Election Integrity

from ncsl's elections team

A graphic that reads "From NCSL Elections Team"It was a sad day in April when Dan Diorio said goodbye to NCSL. If you’re a regular reader of The Canvass, you’ll miss reading his work. We’ll miss that work of course, but mostly we’ll miss his wit and political acumen. He’s now the policy director for the Republican State Leadership Committee. If you’d like to reach out, he’s at

As for us, we’ll keep calm and carry on (a phrase Dan introduced me to). We’re carrying on about two events you all might like to attend. First, the Future of Elections: Technology Policy and Funding conference, June 14 – 16, in Williamsburg, Va. Legislators and legislative staff come free, but everyone is welcome. Contact Amanda Buchanan, Second, NCSL’s Legislative Summit, Aug. 6 -9, in Boston. Good elections programming abounds!

—Wendy Underhill and Amanda Buchanan