Voting by mail gains support

Chris Vetter

With the election only a week away, there is growing concern that students and other citizens of the state will not vote.
Voter turnout has steadily declined over the past 30 years, as fewer people have gone to the polls to cast a ballot for their elected officials.
Several groups and organizations are attempting to get people to vote. Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, the Minnesota Student Association and various speakers, such as Candace Gingrich, have been urging students to get out and vote this year.
The turnout for the 1994 general election was about 38 percent of registered voters nationwide, and was 53 percent in Minnesota. Less than half of the eligible voters in Minnesota cast a ballot in 1994.
Officials in many states have determined poor turnout to be a problem, and are searching for ways to increase the number of voters.
One of the suggested solutions to increase voter turnout is to allow people to mail in their ballots for the general election. The idea of a mail-in voting system is not favored by all, but the idea has gained support since January, when Oregon voters cast their ballots by mail for a new senator to replace the resigning Sen. Bob Packwood. The election was done entirely through the mail.
Turnout was 65 percent, almost 20 points higher than the state average, and well above the 1994 38-percent national turnout.
The system appears simple. Registered voters get their ballots 20 days before the general election and have three weeks to fill out their ballot and return them to the county auditor. Voters are given the time to analyze their choices, rather than make last-minute decisions in the ballot booth.
Turnout is almost always higher in mail ballot elections, as it allows the opportunity for several groups of people who usually cannot vote. Political science professor David Magleby wrote in Western Political Quarterly that “the impact of mail ballot elections is assumed to be especially large among persons without cars, the elderly, handicapped, or those who live great distances from the polling place.”
Minnesota is one of several states that is considering mail-in voting as a way to increase voter turnout. While no legislator has asked for a statewide mail-in election, 161 cities and municipalities in 19 counties in Minnesota currently do all their voting by mail, said Joe Mansky, the Minnesota director of elections.
“People vote by mail in cities with 400 or fewer registered voters,” Mansky said.
Secretary of State Joan Growe said she favors increasing voter turnout by any means, and mail-in elections are a good way to do that.
“I remain committed to making a process that is easier for people to vote,” Growe said.
Growe said mail-in voting has several benefits.
“We support mail-in voting because it is easier for the voter, easier to administer, costs taxpayers less money to mail everyone the ballot instead of opening a polling place and there is greater turnout,” Growe said.
By not opening polling places, Oregon officials estimated a savings of about $1 million in taxpayer money from the election. Growe would not estimate how much money Minnesota could save because the current proposals are not for statewide mail-in voting, and would not be comparable savings.
It is difficult to determine how much higher turnout would be in a mail-in voting system in Minnesota. Magleby estimated the increased turnout for elections would be 19 percent, which was the case in the Oregon election. While Growe would not say how much higher turnout would be, she did point out that the statewide turnout in the Sept. 10 primary was 13 percent, but in the 161 districts where people could vote by mail, participation was 45 percent.
The state legislature took two steps last session to try to increase the ways people can vote by mail in elections. One of the bills designed to increase turnout failed in the House; the other was vetoed by Republican Gov. Arne Carlson.
The proposal in Senate bill SF315 was designed to allow precincts with less than 400 registered voters to vote entirely by mail, which is very similar to the current law that allows cities with less than 400 registered voters to vote by mail. The language of the bill leaves the choice of performing a mail-in election to citizens of each city, but would increase mail-in districts in the state. This bill was vetoed by Carlson.
The House bill, which did not pass out of the House, attempted to increase the number of people in a city for mail-in voting from 400 to 1,000 people.
State Sen. Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, who represents the University area, co-authored SF315. He said increasing voter turnout should not be a partisan issue, although the vote was split almost entirely on party lines.
Voting by mail has become a very partisan issue. Historically, elections with higher turnout favor Democrats. Both in Minnesota and in Oregon, Republicans have been opposed to the mail-in vote, with Democrats favoring the proposal.
Aside from concerns over how the system would affect elections, critics worry about fraud with the mail-in ballot. There is a concern that ballots for deceased people might be submitted, sometimes referred to as the “graveyard vote.”
It was also suggested that mail carriers could discard the ballots in either a poor or prosperous district considered likely to vote for one party or the other. This could tip the outcome of the election. Even Republican Gov. John Kitzhaber of Oregon said his main fear was fraud.
“The potential for vote fraud and voter intimidation is great,” he said in Columbia Journalism Review. “The likelihood of interest groups or even community organizations bringing voters together and helping them with their choices … is increased greatly with the high stakes of general and presidential elections.”
However, no complaints of fraud were issued in Oregon after the January election.
But Rep. Ron Abrams, R-Minnetonka, an ardent opponent of mailing ballots, said fraud is prevalent in mail-in voting. He related a story about a time he was approached at a California mall and asked to vote. He said that when he told the person that he was not a state citizen, the person told him that he could still vote. Abrams warned that this could happen here with voting by mail.
Another reason legislators don’t support the mail-in ballot is to preserve the idea of going to the polls.
“I believe people have the civic duty to get out and vote,” Abrams said.
Political analyst Norman Ornstein wrote in USA Today on the need to preserve civic duty. He wrote, “We need to return to the basics — reviving the important value of a real campaign and reinforcing the spiritual benefits that come from walking or driving to a school or other polling place and joining other Americans in affirming our democracy.”
Abrams said everyone should vote on the same day because events happen in campaigns that change the way people will vote. He said 20,000 Minnesotans cast their mail-in vote for John Grunseth for governor in 1990 before Grunseth withdrew from the race amid scandal. The people who voted early did not have all the information that everyone who waited had, he said.
One complaint of the Oregon election is that it was possible for the media to find out who had voted when the ballots had been turned in, call those people up and ask them how they voted. The media could have essentially kept a running score of how people had voted.
Mike Devlin, the news director of KATU-TV in Oregon said in National Journal that the media could find out how people had voted. “Given the methods of modern-day polling, we could figure out which candidate was winning or, in some cases, had already won,” he said.
However, several reporters in the Twin Cities media market said polling like that had not been considered.
“There is a lot of hypothetical questions there,” said Dennis McGrath of the Star Tribune. “We are talking about an election that hasn’t happened.”
The fear of the media keeping a running score was addressed by bill SF315, which stated, “A list of persons … may not be available for the public inspection until the close of voting on election day.” Mansky said this language was written into the bill for the precise reason of not allowing the media to perform polls that would show which candidate was leading.
“Our proposal would have made names a secret until 8:00 p.m. on election night,” Mansky said. “If you had returned your ballot, no one would have known.”
Others object to the mail-in election because it gets more people who don’t know the issues to vote. Conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe wrote that democracy is not served by mail-in voting. He wrote, “Contrary to populist mythology, American democracy is not suffering because too few citizens choose to vote. It is suffering because too many citizens are ignorant boobs. Yet somehow the delusion has taken hold that a commitment to democratic self-rule means coaxing apathetic numbskulls into voting.”
Growe dismisses these arguments. “The more participation, the better the process will be,” Growe said.
University political science professor Frank Sorauf agrees.
“The notion of surrendering our symbolic trip to the booth is lost on me,” Sorauf said. “I don’t see any overwhelming reasons not to (vote at the polls).”
While mail-in voting has been debated for some time, other possibilities are popping up to increase voter turnout, like the Internet.
Pogemiller said it is only a matter of time until a mail-in voting proposal will pass.
“It is inevitable that it will happen either by mail or by some electronic device,” he said.