On the Oregon Trail: In a Backlash against New Electronic Calamities, Vote by Mail Spreads Far beyond Its Roots, One County at a Time

Article excerpt

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.

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 4,7 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. …