Montana Voices: Vote-by-mail arguments fail

By David Crisp/Last Best News

The debate over voting by mail in Montana rests on one bad argument and two terrible ones.

Terrible argument No. 1 is that voting by mail is cheaper. Irrelevant, if true. Government has no more important function that running free and fair elections. You wouldn’t award the contract for your next brain surgery to the lowest bidder. If we’re so dead set against taxes that we are willing to sacrifice quality elections, then we might as well turn the country over to Vladimir Putin right now .

David Crisp

Terrible argument No. 2: voting by mail favors one political party over another. Irrelevant and un-American. The election system should be designed to facilitate voting, not penalize it. If adding more qualified voters to the election pool happens to favor a particular party, then the party ought to change, not the election system.

The merely bad argument is that voting by mail boosts turnout. High turnout is good, but the evidence that mail voting helps is muddier than many people think. And the long-term trend may be against it.

Legislative debate over holding a mail-only vote to fill the U.S. House seat of Cowboy of the Interior Ryan Zinke spurred Jeff Essmann, chairman of the Montana Republican Party, to fire off a screed against all-mail elections, arguing that they hurt his party. When the Billings Gazette took him to task on its opinion page, Essmann reloaded.

The Gazette editorial, he wrote, was “alarmingly short on facts.” But Essmann’s own grasp of the facts was sadly wanting. He warned that the “Montana Democrat Party” and “nihilist, progressive anti-Trump fringe groups” would conspire to collect mail ballots from voters, then turn in for counting only those that voted the right way.

First, there is no “Montana Democrat Party.” The Democratic Party is the oldest active political party in the world. Using fake names to denigrate opponents is pretty clever for a 3-year-old. It’s abominable in a grown-up.

Second, you can’t really hitch the team of nihilist and progressive to the same wagon, not if you hope to get anywhere. If such fringe groups exist, they are certain to fray.

But Essmann draws the right conclusion, no matter how wrongheaded the path he takes to get there. My own bias against voting by mail is rooted in old fogeyism. I liked casting my ballot by walking to American Lutheran Church, where poll workers greeted me by name and gave me a quick update on turnout if I asked. I liked stepping into the booth, feeling the weight of 2,000 years of democracy on my shoulders and helping to determine the course of America.

I don’t like voting by mail, which is as much fun as filing income taxes, with less chance of a refund.

That’s just a cranky old man talking, but some hard evidence backs me up. According to the Survey of the Performance of American Elections, 57 percent of those who voted by mail were “very confident” their ballot was counted correctly. Of those who voted on Election Day, 74 percent were “very confident.” The states with the least confident voters? Oregon and Washington, where voting by mail is nearly universal.

Another study drew on an oddity in California election law that causes some voters to be randomly assigned to vote by mail in one election but not the next. Those assigned to vote by mail were 13 percent less likely to vote than those who voted on Election Day.

Maybe something really does matter about personally putting a ballot in a box in this increasingly virtual world. No doubt, mail-in ballots have increased turnout in some local and primary elections. But those benefits may be temporary, and they may not apply as in-person voting becomes less available (for a detailed and thoughtful opposing view, go here).

Essmann’s fear that organized groups with out-of-state plates will go around picking up ballots probably is overstated. Just one knock on one wrong door would be enough to turn an activist into a convicted felon.

But critics of mail-in balloting note that it presents chain-of-custody problems. It depends on an accurate mailing list and flawless post office delivery. It’s subject to manipulation by people who cast proxy votes for friends and family, by coercive misinformation tactics and by ballot misappropriation.

“The genie may be out of the bottle,” says Charles Stewart, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We’ve settled for convenience at the cost of accuracy and making sure that every vote counts.”

Nor is it clear that mail-in voting helps Democrats. Michael Slater and Teresa James of Project Vote argue that vote-by-mail discriminates against low-income and densely urban areas where people move frequently and may live at someone else’s address. Those are precisely the voters who tend to vote for Democrats.

Others argue that while vote-by-mail may expand the voter base for local and primary elections, it could have the opposite effect in high-profile elections, serving to mobilize long-term residents with a high propensity to vote anyway.

In-person voting is far from perfect. In the 2016 election, for example, the Detroit news was full of reports about voting problems: long lines, malfunctioning equipment, discrepancies in vote tallies.

No one knows how many votes were lost, but it wouldn’t have taken many. Detroit voters favored Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by 95 percent to 3 percent; Trump won the state of Michigan by 10,704 votes.

The national Crosscheck program, which aims to purge voters registered in more than one state, also has disproportionately hurt minority voters. According to Census data, minorities are overrepresented in 85 of the 100 most common last names, and people with identical last names are often incorrectly purged from voter rolls.

But Stewart and others who study U.S. elections say that in-person voting actually has vastly improved, in large part because of legislation passed after the election fiasco of 2000. He projected that up to 3 million more votes were counted in 2016 because of improvements in election equipment, voter registration and polling operations.

In one study, Montana ranked 12th among the states in election performance, with a waiting time to vote of only 2.1 minutes. Elections may be expensive, but Montanans have gotten a good return on their investment.

Montana also is the only state with a Republican-controlled legislature in the last 20 years to bring a vote-by-mail bill to the floor. The bill passed 57-43 in the House, then died the next day when 15 Republicans changed their votes. Some who opposed the bill argued that it discriminated against people on reservationswho lack mailing addresses.

The real fix to voter turnout is to make national elections national holidays, with incentives to get voters to the polls. If we can talk practically the entire country into eating cranberry sauce one day a year, we ought to be able to entice people to vote.

Or we could take a cue from Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, who argued that states with all-mail ballots turn into “marijuana-all-the-time” states.

He may be onto something. Replacing “I voted” stickers with free marijuana cigarettes at the polls might not only increase turnout, it might make us all feel better about some of the clowns we elect.

David Crisp is a longtime Montana journalist who writes a column for Last Best News in Billings.