Joshua Cohen is a Principal at Fat Pencil Studio
My earliest memory of voting is from 1980. I walked down the street to my elementary school where my parents voted in the library, which had been converted to a polling place. I think they voted for Carter. Ten years later I would vote in my first election, but I don’t remember anything remarkable about that experience. Then in 2000, I moved to Oregon and voted by mail for the first time, which was... different. If you live in Oregon, you probably already know most of what I’m going to cover here, but if you live somewhere else, or are just looking for an easy way to share information about the best voting system in the USA, read on!
Oregon started experimenting with vote by mail in the 1980’s and has used the system for all elections since the year 2000. In the beginning there was concern that a change in voting systems might favor one political party over another. But 20 years in, voting by mail is well liked by voters of all political stripes. Here’s a few specific reasons why I like it:
- An election pamphlet (including candidate statements, plus arguments for & against ballot measures) shows up at my house, leaving plenty of time to learn about the issues.
- I vote at home (no lines, no hurry, no coronavirus) and return my ballot via US mail (no postage required) or at a secure dropbox location.
- A reassuring “ballot accepted” email lets me know my vote was received and counted. This opt-in system is called BallotTrax.
- I stop getting election mailers and robocalls almost immediately after I vote.
Here's a timeline showing my voting activity (in the blue bubbles) along with Multnomah County election deadlines:
This year I voted just a few days after receiving my ballot, in the hopes that I would stop getting distracted by election news. Once my ballot is in, it’s out of my hands right? That hasn’t really worked out as planned (it’s tough to ignore the headlines) but I did stop getting robocalls and election mail from local and state campaigns almost immediately. That’s because Multnomah County provides a database of registered voters to political campaigns, including information about who has returned a ballot. Well-run campaigns don’t waste money trying to reach people who have already voted!
Vote by mail isn’t just a convenience for me, it’s great for Oregon as well. Here’s why:
- After an initial investment in optical scanning equipment, vote-by-mail systems are less expensive to operate and maintain.
- The convenience of at-home voting results in higher participation.
- A paper vote is a secure vote. The paper trail makes election results harder to hack and increases public confidence in the system
- The work of counting ballots can be spread over many days. One week before Election Day in Oregon, over 50% of registered voters have cast ballots
This year, many states are trying vote-by-mail as a way to deal with coronavirus concerns. Of course not every state has made it as easy as Oregon. Some states are dealing with (intentional?) confusion about requirements for witness signatures (Oregon doesn’t require this) or ballot due dates. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott has limited the number of ballot drop boxes to one per county, which is a tiny fraction of the number available in most Oregon counties.
In the end however, millions of people will vote by mail for the first time in 2020, and most of them will probably enjoy it far more than standing in line at the polls. It took Oregon 20 years to fully adopt vote by mail, we are now joined by 9 other states that automatically send mail-in ballots to every voter. By 2024, I expect to see a lot more states in the vote by mail column.