The presidential inauguration is a time of renewal and looking at government and civic participation in a new light. It also reflects a decision made by voters. But how many voters actually participated on Election Day?
Following my previous article, advocating vote-by-mail, let's look at the states that ended up with the highest registered voter turnout in 2012:
Same-day registration, a century of tradition in civic engagement, along with a hotly contested U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin, explain high turnout in the top two states. As for Oregon and Washington, they are the only 100 percent vote-by-mail states.
Despite impressive turnouts in these four states, the level of disenfranchisement in the rest of the country is still high. The number of eligible voters is estimated to be 219 million (the U.S. population of 315 million minus children, non-U.S. citizens, and felons; plus overseas voters). In 2012, about 180 million people were registered to vote, of which only 130 million actually voted. With over 40 percent of eligible voters not participating, election officials need to find effective means to increase access to voting.
There are as many as three elections a year in some states. As committed as one might be to democracy, it is not always easy to make time to go to the polls or to spend hours in line to vote up to three times a year on a Tuesday. An employer won't pay an hourly wage if a worker isn't at her job on Tuesday. People have responsibilities to children, family, and friends, which makes Tuesday a difficult day to go to the polls. In fact, that makes any day a difficult one to go to the polls. How can we encourage voter turnout and reduce disenfranchisement while preserving the quality and integrity of voting systems? Vote by mail.
A New York Times article on Oct. 6, 2012, may have scared readers about absentee voting (or vote-by-mail) by highlighting potential problems, only some of which are serious issues. In particular, it cited the number of rejected ballots as "2 percent of ballots cast by mail, double the rate for in-person voting." I found this comment somewhat irresponsible. Oregon and Washington's ballots cast by mail averaged a 10 percent higher voter turnout than elsewhere. If we can get that many more people to vote with a vote-by-mail system, that surely beats a 1 percent incremental rejection rate any day. Errors shouldn't deter absentee voting. Voting by mail gives more citizens a voice.
The article highlighted a rejection rate that doesn't begin to compare to the size of disenfranchisement. Yes, the reason absentee ballots are most often rejected is user error -- late submissions, forgetting to sign. But for every absentee voter who makes an error in voting and whose ballot may be rejected, this more accessible system would deliver several times as many incremental voters. After two pages of fear mongering, the reporter addresses the real problem: "The absentee ballot itself could be blamed for some of the problems" and "it is certainly possible to improve the process and reduce the error rate." As we continue to vote by mail, we'll get better at it, and rejection rates will decrease.
The fact remains that voting by mail (or absentee ballots) removes numerous impediments that currently exist to voting. Until this nation moves to a 100 percent vote-by-mail system, we will continue to struggle for equal access to voting and giving all citizens a voice.