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The Ballot’s In The Mail?

As someone who works on voting rights, it’s hard to argue that Florida and Michigan voters (who had nothing to do with scheduling their rogue primaries) should be shut out of the process…

  • Maggie Barron
March 10, 2008

The media was atwitter over the weekend with possible solutions to the Florida/Michigan primary problem. Can the Democratic Party disenfranchise all those voters merely to prove a point? Did the states miscalculate so wildy that there’s a real chance they won’t be able to seat any delegates in one of the most important conventions in years? And who is going to pay for another round of elections? As someone who works on voting rights, it’s hard to argue that those Florida and Michigan voters (who had nothing to do with scheduling their rogue primaries) should be shut out of the process. But the kid in me, reared on playgrounds and games like handball and freeze tag, knows you can’t change the rules in the middle of the game.

One solution bandied about by the Florida Democratic Party, according to the Los Angeles Times, is a vote-by-mail election, which would cost significantly less than another traditional primary. “Under this scenario,” the article says, “ballots would be mailed out to all of Florida’s approximately 4.7 million registered Democrats in May or June,” costing between $4-$6 million (much less than the estimated $25 million for another traditional primary).

But trying to implement a vote-by-mail scheme so quickly is not the solution to get the Florida Democratic Party out of this mess. Vote-by-mail might seem easier, and it certainly is cheaper, but sending ballots out to 4.7 million voters is complicated and subject to errors that could easily compound Florida’s primary woes.

Consider California, where officials were still processing and counting vote-by-mail ballots weeks after its primary. According to the New York Times, about 4.1 million Californians voted by mail. The practice can be easier for voters, but it is labor-intensive for registrars and staff, who must open all the mail, authenticate it, and sort it by precinct. In California, voting officials literally ironed thousands of ballots that had been crumpled or creased in the mail, in order to feed them into the vote-counting machines (the appropriate setting to iron out a ballot, just so you know, is apparently “silk.”)  This is part of the reason why, two weeks after Super Tuesday, California still had some 800,000 ballots to count.

And that’s only considering the vote-by-mail ballots that actually reach eligible voters. In California on Super Tuesday, the Election Protection Hotline reported numerous calls from confused voters who had requested vote-by-mail ballots but had never received them. Project Vote reminds us that vote-by-mail can only be as dependable as the mail service itself, which is inconsistent in low-income and densely populated urban areas, areas with non-traditional addresses, and when people move. So for people who live in housing developments or remote urban areas, and who get there mail less reliably than others, this is not a great solution.

Linking your ability to vote with the post office’s ability to reach you is a dangerous proposition. Voter caging, the practice of sending out mass mailings and using the returned mail to challenge voters’ registrations, is notoriously inaccurate, which is why there are currently bills pending in Congress to ban the practice. Voter registration lists can be rife with simple errors in addresses that can make mail undeliverable, and mail often goes undelivered even when the voter at the address may be registered and perfectly eligible.

While vote-by-mail shows promise as a means of conducting elections in the future, it can’t be implemented as quickly as many election officials want it to be. As voting technology expert Larry Norden explained in testimony in Ohio (which has been considering a vote-by-mail plan for the November elections), delivering high-volume mailings in a secure, accessible way is no easy feat, and it should not be adopted without good planning and public education, especially right before a critical election (and certainly not for a slap-dash do-over election like we may have in Florida.) 

The cost of a vote-by-mail election is even more attractive to the Florida Democratic Party, since it is getting no love, or money, from DNC chair Howard Dean or Governor Charlie Crist. But the truth is there will be no easy, or cheap, solution here. Unfortunately it will be voters who will in some way pay for the party’s mistake.