Voting by Mail Could Improve American Democracy

Posted June 21, 2005 at 3:17pm

Americans have days full of many commitments — jobs, time with their families and errands among them. When you throw one more item into the mix, such as voting, it can be a challenge to squeeze in everything.

While I personally love the ritual of going to the polls to vote, I know that getting to the polls on Election Day is difficult for many people. And for some, it is impossible.

A simple, common sense solution that is reasonably inexpensive is voting by mail, also know as absentee voting.

I have introduced the Universal Vote by Mail Act (H.R. 1835) to require states to provide an excuse-free vote-by-mail option to all eligible voters in federal elections.

Voting by mail will allow Americans to participate in federal elections on their own time. Citizens can vote from the convenience of their own homes. They will have more time to mull over their choices and make informed decisions. And they will be able to do so on their own terms, potentially avoiding long lines at the polls.

Currently, 24 states restrict an eligible voter’s ability to vote by mail. These states restrict vote-by-mail privileges to certain categories of people, including the elderly, individuals with disabilities or illness, service members and students. Another 25 states give eligible voters the option of voting by mail for any reason. And Oregon conducts its elections entirely by mail.

The fact that some states allow more voters to vote by mail than others creates an uneven playing field. Why should voters in one state have greater opportunity to vote than voters in another state in the same election?

California, my home state, instituted universal voting by mail in 1978. Since then, there has been a 30 percent increase in voters casting their ballot by mail. States across the country that provided a vote-by-mail option during the 2004 election saw a 6.7 percent increase in voter turnout. In fact, more than one-quarter of the voters in my San Diego district opted to vote by mail.

A recently conducted state poll showed that nearly 30 percent of voters said they would vote more often if given the option to vote by mail.

Critics of voting by mail claim that it causes a rise in voter fraud. Yet studies show that there are more incidents of alleged fraud at polling places than in voting by mail.

There are also extremely low incidences of fraud with voting by mail when compared to other methods of voting. The state of Oregon, which runs its elections entirely by mail, has prosecuted only four cases of fraud in the last six elections

Some argue that voting by mail ensures greater integrity because addresses cannot be forged, and signatures on mail-in ballots can easily be compared to those on registration cards.

Studies have also indicated that adding the option to vote by mail does not create a partisan advantage for one political party over the other. Republicans and Democrats both benefit from similar increases in voter turnout when voters are given the choice to mail in their ballots.

The Universal Vote by Mail Act would not dictate how states would run their vote-by-mail system. For example, it would leave intact filing deadlines set by each state. Further, the bill would still give voters the choice of the time-honored practice of going to the polls on Election Day. All it does is lift restrictions on who is eligible to vote by mail.

As the former president of the League of Women Voters of San Diego, I care deeply about the integrity of our electoral system. Already, 25 states have proved that this option works and it is safe. It is time to give voters in the remaining states this convenient, secure and affordable alternative.

Democracy works best when all citizens have an equal opportunity to have their voices heard. Right now, an uneven playing field exists between states that already offer the option of mail-in ballots and states that do not.

Rep. Susan Davis is a Democrat from California.