What If We Held an Election and Nobody Came? Voter Turnout Is Plummeting. How Vote-by-Mail Reverses the Trend

By Keisling, Phil | The Washington Monthly, March 1996 | Go to article overview

What If We Held an Election and Nobody Came? Voter Turnout Is Plummeting. How Vote-by-Mail Reverses the Trend


Keisling, Phil, The Washington Monthly


Whether the "Republican Revolution" made you cheer or want to move to Canada, it's hard to take solace in the final scorecard for November 1994: 20 percent support for Republican congressional candidates, 18 percent for Democrats, and 62 percent for none of the above.

Just 56 percent of registered voters in America actually cast ballots in that election. Considering those who weren't even registered, just 38 percent of America's adults voted. Nearly 80 percent of twenty somethings just said "no" to voting.

Politicians and highly partisan voters may not really mind chronic low turnout. But declining participation is perilous for the country. It means public officials are accountable to only a relative handful of voters, and special interests have an easier time manipulating money and voting blocs to drive the political process.

Some of the reasons for low turnout - negative advertising, vacuous political rhetoric, excessive partisanship, and a loss of faith in government - are profound, so the solutions are elusive. But one step in the right direction involves nothing more complicated than a 32-cent postage stamp.

In Oregon, we're not holding our breath for another century, waiting for Congress to adopt European-style voting on weekends or holidays. For 15 years, Oregon's 1.8 million registered voters have voted by mail in special elections on everything from road levies to amendments to the state Constitution. Our success has been dramatic.

On January 30, Oregon conducted the first vote-by-mail election for a U.S. Senate seat, electing Rep. Ron Wyden to succeed Bob Packwood in a razor-close election. Almost 66 percent of registered voters cast ballots, a new record for special elections in Oregon. The last time a special election occurred to fill a U.S. Senate vacancy - the June 1993 Texas election in which Kay Bailey Hutchison succeeded Lloyd Bentsen - turnout of registered voters was less than 21 percent.

The logistics of vote-by-mail are straightforward. Voters receive their ballots in the mail about two-and-a-half weeks before Election Day. They can fill them out on their own time, even at 10 p.m. after the kids are in bed. Ballots can be mailed or dropped off (for free) at any of 160 sites. Fraud is minimized by checking the signature on the ballot envelope against the original on the voter registration card. In 15 years of elections involving tens of millions of ballots, there's been just one documented case of vote-by-mail fraud here.

Given the reality of minority government in today's America - a situation bemoaned by prestigious foundations, editorial writers, and elected officials alike - you'd think this simple but compelling reform would be sweeping America. Not so. To date, vote-by-mail has only a tenuous foothold in about a dozen states. No state explicitly allows it in regular primary or general elections. And the opposition is fierce.

The debate over vote-by-mail reveals some deeper truths about what's wrong with our democratic process. For one thing, vote-by-mail has illuminated the yawning gap between the priorities of some members of the intellectual and political elite who shape public discourse and those who have to punch a time clock or work two jobs to support their families.

Here's American Enterprise Institute scholar Norman Ornstein inveighing against vote-by-mail in a USA Today column: "Standing in line getting a ballot, going in the private booth, filling it out and then putting it in a box - all express the highest value of democracy. …

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