Mail-in Ballots and Electoral Justice

Yesterday, according to the Associated Press Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett called for an overhaul of Arizona’s ballot-counting system, saying that “Arizona would have been the focus of nationwide derision if the presidential election had been in the balance.”  That’s ironic, given that in two conversations he and I had on the phone last week, Bennett was insistent that there was nothing seriously wrong with Arizona’s ballot-counting processes and that protests like the one I had helped organize were unfairly giving state elections officials a black eye.

Of course, one could hardly blame Bennett for his concern. More than a week of protests, mainly by high-school students connected to the Adios Arpaio Campaign, had brought upon his office an avalanche of questions, and even scorn (best evidenced by this entertaining piece by Rachel Maddow) from local and national media.

In making his about face, Bennett has put forward some interesting ideas, particularly adding new scanning machines at the polls to verify ballots much more quickly.  When we meet with him in the coming weeks, I will be eager to hear his other ideas to have, as he declared to AP, 98% of ballots counted at the end of election day and to cut provisional voting by 90%.  Of course, I am sure he will need all of our help to secure the millions of dollars in additional funds he will need to put these reforms into place.

All the controversy around Arizona’s uncounted ballots though (particularly the 500,000, or almost 40% of Maricopa County ballots that remained to be counted the day after the election), got me to thinking about who wins and who loses in vote-by-mail elections.  So I did a little research.

A couple of things are certain when it comes to vote-by-mail elections.

First, as illustrated in this New York Times graphic, vote-by-mail, in the United States, is a Western phenomenon, largely developed as a way to save money in the elections process.  Second, despite their tendency to vote by mail, Arizonans really do not want to move in the direction of Oregon and Washington who have all-mail elections–they voted 71% to 29% against a 2006 ballot measure to create universal vote-by-mail elections in Arizona.

It turns out, however, that opinions vary on the left as to whether vote-by-mail creates more or less justice in our electoral processes. David Dayen, for instance, a few days ago declared on the Firedoglake blog that vote-by-mail is “clearly the best solution to get hundreds of millions of Americans to vote.”  Eliminating lines, stretching-out the ballot count, and allowing voters to mull over their vote with a ballot in front of them will remove many barriers to voting among regular Americans.  The Progressive States Network, as well, has taken an affirmative stance on universal vote-by-mail, adding cost effectiveness and the flexibility of multiple drop-off sites to the arguments for mail-in voting.

I remain compelled, though, by 3 of the reservations raised in 2007 by Project Vote: (1) as it is only as reliable as the mail system itself, and as low-income voters move more often than their more affluent counterparts, vote-by-mail, and, in particular, universal vote-by-mail may serve to disenfranchise, relatively speaking, low income voters; (2) the actual rise in voter participation in vote-by-mail situations tends to come not from including new and underrepresented voters, but increasing participation among sometimes-voters who are demographically similar to habitual voters; and (3) vote-by-mail is more susceptible to manipulation by partisan election officials who can decide which voters are or are not considered “active” voters eligible to receive ballots.

In the end, though, this commentary on vote-by-mail tends simply to confirm what many of us on the ground have been learning in Arizona over the last several years–that no electoral system can by itself create a more just and inclusive voting process.  Vote-by-mail has served in Arizona to increase voting among low income citizens and Latinos because of the organizations, community leaders, and volunteers who have gone door to-door in working-class neighborhoods throughout the state registering voters and signing voters onto the Permanent Early Voter List (PEVL).  Indeed, according to the Latino voter engagement organization Mi Familia Vota, those voting rights activists raised the numbers of Latinos on the PEVL from 90,000 in 2008 to over 220,000 in 2012.  Mi Familia Vota reports that, as of November 2 (four days before election day) almost 111,000 Latino voters in Arizona had cast early votes by mail–compared to 86,902 early votes among Latinos in the entire 2008 Arizona elections.

Clearly, election officials never expected this kind of increase among Latino voters; nor have they, until now, responded with the appropriate urgency to accommodate the amazing influx.  But just as organizing increased the vote, organizing appears to be bringing about the changes necessary to making sure the votes will be counted in a timely and just fashion.  Here’s hoping that, together with Ken Bennett and election officials, we can make sure that Arizona will be a model for efficient and inclusive elections in 2016.  And given the problems Florida has 12 years after the “hanging chad” fiasco, we should all be pretty proud of that.

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