With the way everyone seems to be talking about the election one way or another – in the media, at home, on Zoom water cooler chats – you could be forgiven for thinking that basically every American who can votes.
But, well, you’d be wrong.
For a country that so publicly prides itself on citizens’ fundamental right to vote, the number of people who actually use that right is embarrassingly low.
Witness, in the 2016 presidential election, only 55.7 percent of voting age Americans voted. In 2012, it was just 54.9 percent. In 2008, voter turnout reached the highest level since the 1960s . . . at 58.2 percent.
These numbers put us significantly behind most other developed nations. But worse than losing face is the fact that these low turnout rates mean that just over half of voters choose the shape of our government and the direction of the country for all of us. Which in practice means a government by some of the people, for some of the people.
Changing that starts with giving every voter the option of vote-by-mail.
Who Votes, Decides
One of the consequences of a relatively low voter turnout is the fact that the groups who do cast their ballot have an outsize influence not just on getting politicians into office, but the policies they pursue once they get there.
So who is deciding the shape of the country?
No surprise: on average, older and more affluent White Americans.
A Pew Research Center study of the 2016 electorate found that 56 percent of validated voters were Americans 50 and older. Seventy-four percent were White, compared to just 10 percent Black and Latinx, respectively. Notably, 33 percent of voters had incomes of $75,000 or more.
Why does this matter? Not only are less-affluent Americans and people of color not being represented on Election Day, but their policy views are less likely to be reflected in government. And non-voter policy views tend toward aggressive steps to combat inequality and large-scale government action on social issues.
Reporting on data from the American National Election Studies survey of the 2014 election, Sean McElwee writes in the Atlantic:
“Nonvoters tend to support increasing government services and spending, guaranteeing jobs, and reducing inequality—all policies that voters, on the whole, oppose. Both groups support spending on the poor, but the margin among nonvoters is far larger . . . [N]onvoters are more supportive of interventionist government policies by an average margin of 17 points.”
But because non-voters by definition don’t vote, politicians feel less pressure to respond to their preferences. So instead of ambitious federal action to tackle inequality, racial injustice, and the climate crisis, we get tax cuts for the wealthy.
So What Gives?
There are plenty of reasons people don’t vote. As NPR reports, disillusionment and apathy among young and less affluent Americans ranks high, with many feeling – rightly – that the politicians in office don’t really represent them.
Then there’s voter suppression. In 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated a critical section of the Voting Rights Act in the landmark (for all the wrong reasons) case Shelby vs. Holder. The result was a flood of new measures introducing strict voter ID laws, restricting early voting, and purging thousands of voters from the rolls, to name just a few.
No surprise, the cumulative impact of these measures hits people of color much harder than White Americans, creating real barriers for Black and brown voters. A poll of 2016 voters by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Atlantic revealed:
- Ten and 11 percent of Black and Latinx respondents were told their names were not on the voter rolls, even though they were registered (compared to 5 percent of White respondents)
- Nine percent of Black and Latinx respondents were told they didn’t have the correct ID to vote (compared to 3 percent of White respondents)
- Nine and seven percent of Black and Latinx respondents were harassed or bothered while voting (compared to 4 percent of White respondents).
The same poll also showed that these barriers and disparities begin before voters even reach their polling location, with 16 percent of Black and Latinx respondents reporting they were unable to get off work to vote during polling hours (compared to 8 percent of White respondents).
It’s Time for Vote-by-Mail
There’s no silver bullet solution to a system that actively disenfranchises people of color and a government that favors the interests of wealthy, White voters.
But bringing more voices into the process and giving more voters a say in our democracy is an important place to start. And that starts with vote-by-mail.
Here’s how it works. A well-designed vote-by-mail system automatically sends ballots to all registered voters. Voters then have the option to mail or drop off their ballots in a designated spot in time to be received and counted on Election Day. Or they can still go to a physical polling station, critical for Native American communities and others with non-traditional mailing addresses.
By giving people the option to easily vote by mail, voters can avoid the challenge of dealing with work or childcare to take time off to vote in person. And in a time when seemingly every public health official is telling us to avoid large groups whenever possible to protect ourselves from COVID-19, skipping crowded public polling places to vote by mail just makes sense in a well, duh kind of way.
The good news is that clear majorities of Americans see the benefits of vote-by-mail in protecting their right to vote and protecting themselves from the pandemic. Not one, but two polls showed that two-thirds of Americans support vote-by-mail in 2020.
Critically, vote-by-mail can significantly boost turnout. A study of Colorado’s all-mail voter system showed that universal access to mail-in ballots led to a nine point jump in voter participation across all groups.
Most important, the same study showed that mail-in voting had the greatest impact on turnout in historically disenfranchised and low-turnout groups. Youth voter turnout increased 16 points, while turnout among blue-collar workers, and Black, Latinx, and Asian American voters also saw significant gains.
Vote-by-mail can also be a powerful weapon in the fight against voter suppression. Since 2013, we’ve seen Southern US states close over 1,200 polling stations, making it harder and harder to vote. And the recent travesties of primary elections in Wisconsin, Kentucky, and Georgia – with vastly inadequate numbers of polling stations and functional voting equipment creating long lines and waits most often in communities of people of color – underscore how easily administrative decisions can create huge practical barriers to voting and force voters to choose between their health and their vote.
And yes, vote-by-mail is secure.
“I guarantee you that vote-by-mail is more secure and accurate than polling place elections,” Julie Wise, King County elections director, told the New York Times. Wise should know, overseeing elections for over 2.25 million people in the most populous county in Washington State, which has run mail-in elections since 2005.
Unlike presidential claims, Wise’s opinion is supported by actual research. Researchers studying vote-by-mail in the three states that have used it the longest – Colorado, Washington, and Oregon – have seen no significant increase in voter fraud. And when people do try to cheat the system, they get caught.
More people voting safely and securely. More voices participating in democracy and shaping the future of our government that works for people and not just the wealthy. What’s not to love about vote-by-mail?
The Bottom Line
- Vote-by-mail can significantly boost voter participation, particularly among young, blue-collar, and BIPOC voters.
- Vote-by-mail is safe, secure, and easy.
- Vote-by-mail can make for a more diverse and active democracy and a government that reflects the lives and priorities of all Americans – not just White and wealthy Americans.
- Vote-by-mail can help circumvent voter suppression efforts and ensure all eligible Americans can vote safely.
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