Voting by mail scares politicians. But the scared politicians keeps changing.
Today, Republican legislators fear that voting by mail will skew elections Democratic. Twenty-five years ago, however, Oregon's Democratic governor vetoed the Republican proposal to switch to voting by mail. He feared voting by mail would skew elections Republican. How the wheel turns.
And keeps turning. This year, Vermont's Republican governor coaxed a partial vote-by-mail bill out of his legislature only over objections of skeptical Democrats. Now, with two decades of voting by mail experience, 77% of Oregonians, including the Democratic ex-governor opposing the original effort, prefer mail-in ballots. Oregon's former Republican secretaries of state are especially fervent: Bev Clarno called it "a 20-year history of success." Her predecessor, Dennis Richardson, boasted that Oregonians "are leading the nation and defining the best practices on accessibility, security and integrity in elections."
It's not just Republicans — our Democratic secretaries of state laud mail-in ballots. Bill Bradbury says: "…we love voting by mail." The title of Phil Keisling's opinion piece is dramatic: "Vote From Home, Save Your Country."
But this enthusiasm overlooks voting by mail's greatest value: lower costs. Election expenses grow each year, a concern to the Wharton Public Policy Initiative, Mercatus Center, and National Coalition of State Legislatures. But Oregon decreased costs by replacing expensive polling station with mail-in ballots. Tennessee, where voting by mail is difficult, spent $6.89 per vote in its 2020 primary election (Tennessee Elections Division). Oregon spent $2.38. With voting by mail, Tennessee taxpayers might have saved $4 million.
Other states ask: Without polling stations, what does voting day look like? In Oregon, like other vote-by-mail states, it looks much like any other. Voters with unmailed ballots seek neighborhood collection boxes. We don't see polling booths, voting machines, poll workers or waiting lines. Voting takes less time than drinking a latte.
Other voting behaviors look normal as well. Changes in turnout, registration, and party success are imperceptible. Voter fraud remains rare. Of 100 million mail-in ballots cast in 20 years, Oregon found only a dozen cases of deliberate fraud — less odds than dying in a plane crash.
But Oregon saves money. Former Secretary of State Phil Keisling estimated $3 million per election. Other states can profit, literally, from Oregon's example. Many already have. Colorado saw election costs drop 40% after converting. Election costs in Washington and Utah are as low as Oregon's. Even local governments save money. San Diego County estimated a $2-3 million savings per election. Voters in every vote-by-mail state give it high satisfaction scores. Every voter in every state deserves mail-in ballots.
Some caveats. First, trust is critical. To promote confidence, Oregon allows voters to track their vote from mailing to counting, providing reassurance that all votes count. Second, states save money only after investing money. Before Oregon completed its 15-year conversion process, expenses rose as the state financed both voting by mail and in-person polling stations. Other states experienced similar transition costs. However, when complete, Oregon's election costs dropped.
But states don't need 15 years to convert. Washington took 10 years. Colorado seven. Utah five. This accelerated transition maintained public support: Preference for voting by mail in all these states exceeds Oregon's.
Justice Louis Brandeis called states "laboratories of democracy." Every state laboratory implementing mail-in ballots likes the product — voters enjoy convenience and taxpayers enjoy saving money. Whether you are voter or taxpayer, voting by mail improves your life.
Samuel Metz is a physician from Southwest Portland. Robert Liebman is a professor of sociology at Portland State University.
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