From a continuing series of articles, Who Can Vote?, a News21 investigation of voting rights in America. Read the full series.
By Sarah Jane Capper and Michael Ciaglo
In the partisan controversies over changes in voter eligibility and voter ID requirements, the growth of mail voting and no-excuse absentee voting have received little attention. While voter-impersonation fraud at the polls is nearly unheard of, both sides in the voter fraud debate acknowledge that absentee ballots are susceptible to fraud.
Early voting has begun, and more Americans than ever are expected to vote by mail this fall in the presidential, state and local elections. A gradual loosening of absentee voting laws in many states, especially in the West, and universal mail voting in Oregon and Washington have contributed to a significant shift in how Americans vote.
In 1972, less than 5 percent of American voters used absentee ballots, according to census data. By 2010, almost 16 percent of votes cast in the 2010 general election were absentee ballots, and nearly 5 percent more were mail ballots, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission's Election Administration and Voting Survey. If in-person early voters are counted, nearly 30 percent of the voters in 2010 did not go to the polls on Election Day.
"By 2016, casting a ballot in a traditional polling place will be a choice rather than a requirement," said Doug Chapin, a University of Minnesota researcher and director of the Program for Excellence in Election Administration. "There will still be people who go to the polling place because it's familiar, it's convenient, it's traditional. I think there will be fewer of those places."
More susceptible to fraud
Election fraud is rare, but it usually involves absentee or mail ballots, said Paul Gronke, a Reed College political scientist, who directs the Early Voting Information Center in Oregon. He cites what he calls a classic example of election fraud, a local official stealing votes by filling out absentee ballots. That was the case in Lincoln County, W.Va., where the sheriff and clerk pleaded guilty to distributing absentee ballots to unqualified voters and helping mark them during a 2010 Democratic primary.
Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, said vote-buying and bribery could occur more easily with mail voting and absentee voting. At a polling place, someone who bribed voters would have no way to verify that the bribe worked. A person who bribes mail voters could watch as they mark ballots or even mark ballots for them.
Gans also points to the potential to influence voters in gatherings that some call ballot-signing parties. A caregiver could mark a dependent's ballot.
"All the other types of fraud are essentially hard to do and easy to defend against," Gans said. "This isn't."
Putting a ballot inside an envelope and sealing it inside another envelope for mailing stirs skepticism, though. Election officials, political scientists and voters have concerns. They doubt that mailed ballots can be secure. They question whether forces beyond voters' control — smudges that disqualify ballots and breakdowns in keeping track of ballots, for example — will disallow votes. And some want to preserve Election Day traditions.
Gronke said that he hasn't seen evidence that bribes and coercion increase when voters use the mail. And ballot parties can allow people to discuss and make informed choices, he said, without pressuring their vote.
Those who have argued for stronger election security also say the mail could allow coercion by an abusive spouse; Gronke said he sees little evidence of that.
A Western phenomenon
Changes have occurred gradually to absentee voting, which began as a service to Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War and spread to civilians state by state.
Few paid attention when California extended absentee voting to anyone on request in 1978. The Los Angeles Times referred to a "little-noticed law" that eliminated the need to list a reason to get an absentee ballot. In the 2010 election, 40.3 percent of Californians voted absentee, according to Election Assistance Commission data.
Now, 27 states and the District of Columbia offer no-excuse absentee voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Many states have dropped notary and witness requirements for all absentee voters. Some have permanent absentee lists to automatically send ballots to voters in every election, a de facto vote-by-mail system.
Most states have opted for a mixture, offering some combination of no-excuse absentee voting, early voting, mail voting and Election Day voting. These categories often blur and overlap. A voter might drop off a ballot in person instead of mailing it, for example.
"It has to do almost entirely with voter convenience," said Jennifer Drage Bowser, a senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "The more options there are outside the traditional polling place, the more voters like it."
The Obama campaign in 2008 received 59 percent of the early votes nationwide, according to a Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll. The Post reported, "For years, the profile of the early voter closely conformed to the characteristics of Republicans: older, white, more ideological and better informed about politics. ... But Obama turned the conventional wisdom on its head in 2008, drawing out vast numbers of African Americans to vote early in person, especially in southeastern states such as Florida. Many were organized by church to vote on the final Sunday before Election Day."
Western states have the highest levels of absentee voting, according to the Election Administration and Voting Survey. Those levels reached almost 70 percent in Colorado and 61 percent in Arizona, according to the survey. In 13 states, more than 20 percent of voters used absentee ballots.
All Washington and Oregon elections are conducted statewide by mail. In Washington, each county still maintains at least one voting center. In Oregon, each County Elections Office provides privacy booths for those who want to vote in person or need assistance.
Oregon approved a test of vote-by-mail in 1981, and about 40 percent of Oregon voters used absentee ballots in the 1994 federal election. By the next year Oregon statewide elections with candidates were by mail, and in 1998 the state voted for all elections to be by mail. Washington, where absentee voting was similarly popular, tested voting by mail and used it in all but one county until the state adopted all-mail ballots in 2011.
A generation of voters in Oregon has never set foot inside a voting booth.
Jessica Hall, 32, has 2-year-old twins and runs a home business. She always has voted by mail; Oregon switched shortly before her 18th birthday. She makes better decisions, Hall said, than if she had to stand in a long line outside a polling place. In the evening, when her children are asleep, Hall sits quietly and reads her ballot, then votes.
"Without vote-by-mail, I would be less likely to vote. I don't have time," Hall said. "There's no way my kids would allow me to stand in line and do that."
North Dakota counties can decide whether any of their elections should be conducted by mail. Eighteen other states allow vote-by-mail in some cases — uncontested Arkansas primaries with no other ballot measures, for example.
Resistance in the East
East of the Mississippi, the mail is more likely to be a back-up option for those who can't get to the polls on Election Day. That's the case in 15 states, including New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Jan Leighley, a political scientist at American University, offered culture and population density as possible explanations for the low popularity of absentee/mail voting in the East. Eastern and Midwestern states tend to have more established, formal political parties — a culture resistant to changing voting modes, Leighley said. In widely dispersed populations in Western states, voters and election officials have more to gain by using mail, Leighley said. They wouldn't have to pay to operate scarcely used polling places, and voters wouldn't have to travel as far to cast a ballot.
New Jersey has allowed mail ballots on request since 2005, but fewer people are using them than expected, said Robert Giles, director of the New Jersey Division of Elections.
About 5 percent of New Jersey votes were by mail in 2010, compared with about 4 percent in 2005, according to a report from the elections division.
"Going to the polls, I think it's ingrained in our society," Giles said about the slow growth of mail voting in his state. "For some people, there's a social aspect. They see the same election board workers every time they vote, and it offers a sense of community."
Weighing the benefits
Voting by mail is transforming American elections, said John Fortier, a political scientist of the Washington, D.C., Bipartisan Policy Center.
"It's not something we've fully thought out all the consequences of, and we certainly haven't had one big national debate over it," said Fortier, author of "Absentee and Early Voting: Trends, Promises and Perils."
Proponents say the mail offers voters time to weigh choices and flexibility for their busy schedules, even more so than early in-person voting. It reverses how elections work, said Phil Keisling, former Oregon secretary of state and director of the Center for Public Service at Portland State University. "The default is bringing the ballot to the voter, not forcing the voter to go to the ballot," Keisling said.
Mail benefits outweigh potential fraud, supporters said.
"If you try to literally kill everything in your body that may kill you, you will definitely die," Keisling said. "If you try to wring every possibility of mischief and fraud out of a voting system, you will cramp it down so hard that very few people will end up voting."
Some see mail as a step backward from the Help America Vote Act of 2002. Charles Stewart, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the law mandated improved voting equipment. That improved technology made vote counts more accurate, he said, leading to 1 million more votes being counted. Mail ballot procedures have not been improved, Stewart said, estimating that errors such as pencil smudges, errant marks or breakdowns in keeping track of ballots can mean up to 7.6 million mail votes could go uncounted. Machines prevent voters from casting errant ballots, he said. "The two sides of that equation just don't balance out," Stewart said. "Many more ballots are sent out than come back."
Mail voters could base their decisions on different information than those who go to the polls, Gans said. And voting before Election Day leaves open the prospect for voters to turn in their ballots, then see a stock market crash or terrorist attack and wish they could change their votes, Gans said.
A longer window until voting time, however, means people can vote more carefully and make better-informed decisions, Keisling said.
The mail also means campaigns can't count on a final push the week before an election to sway voters, because many already will have cast ballots. Plus, the mail makes election-night results less reliable, Chapin said, because absentee ballots must be counted, and there are enough of them to change the election results.
The more immediate future of the mail and voting depends largely on cost, Chapin said. One could think it makes little sense to keep a lot of polling places open on Election Day when more people are voting by mail or early. States might move entirely to the mail, as Oregon and Washington, or scale back Election Day voting.
"If it costs me a lot of money to get just a few voters in person," Chapin said, "then I'm going to reduce my investment there and spend money elsewhere."
News21 is a program of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation that is helping to change the way journalism is taught in the U.S. and train a new generation of journalists capable of reshaping the news industry. It is headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. Since 2006, nearly 500 top journalism students in the U.S. have participated in the landmark national initiative.