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How Voting Exclusively By Mail Impacts Voter Turnout

Voting stickers sit on a table for people voting with absentee ballots on site at the Miami-Dade County elections office, Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012 in Miami. The Florida campaign office for President Barack Obama is encouraging Floridians to to vote absentee in person with their "Vote Now! " initiative. The general election is Nov. 6

CREDIT: AP/Lynne Sladky.

Is it time to put voting booths to rest? Facing historically low voter-turnout, experts and advocates aren’t leaving any option un-examined in their quest to increase voting rates in the upcoming election. But while many of these suggestions discuss the ideology–like political disenfranchisement and party frustration–behind these low numbers, the conversation often leaves out a critical factor: how different types of voter methodology can impact turnout.

As the New York Times wrote, across the nation “the use of absentee ballots and other forms of voting by mail has more than tripled since 1980 and now accounts for almost 20 percent of all votes.” In recent years, states have jumped on board with the vote-by-mail system, with Oregon becoming the first state to follow this practice in 1998, Washington in 2011, and Colorado joining in 2014. Additionally states such as California have pushed away from the classic mechanisms of voting and moved closer towards holding elections exclusively by mail.

In addition to avoiding the various problems that have been attributed to come with in-person election day voting such as inaccessibility to the polls, time conflicts, or having to wait in long lines, voting by mail has also been seen to improve voter turnout when implemented.

While many critics have been quick to attack the margin of error often rate of absentee voting and the few complications that often result in rejection of ballots and voter fraud, it has been similarly argued that the positive yield in voter turnout through mail-only voting outweighs these potential problems. As the Huffington Post noted: states such as Oregon and Washington’s ballots cast by mail averaged a 10 percent higher voter turnout than elsewhere. Additionally, it has been seen to improve voter access and alleviate potential class bias in the way voting is conducted.

Similarly, exclusively by mail voting has been seen to work well when paired with automatic voter registration as in Colorado’s 2014 election where the legislature mailed all automatically registered voters a ballot. This merge would not only help in accessibility and outreach, but could and further increase turnout and accountability.  Additionally, since 2012 Alaska has become the only state that lets citizens submit their ballot securely online oppose to having to go the voter booth.

While there is still great difference from state to state on the future direction of voting, moving away from the many conflicts of in-person voting and moving closer to a mail or online system could help increase voter turnout and accessibility across the nation.

Jazmin Kay is a reporter for Generation Progress, covering voting rights and civic engagement. Follow her on Twitter at @jazminlkay.

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