More states turn to mail-only elections to cut costs
In August and November, voters will once again pour into their local polling places to cast their ballots in the primary and general elections. However, jurisdictions in a growing number of states are foregoing the traditional polling place format and switching to mail-only elections.
Mail-only elections began in Oregon nearly 30 years ago, says Dana DeBeauvoir, Travis County, Texas, clerk and chair of elections for the Morrisville, N.C.-based National Association of County Recorders, Election Officials and Clerks (NACRC). “There was a lot of controversy at the time,” DeBeauvoir says. Critics said the mail-only format would open the door to fraud, eliminate ballot privacy and possibly even lead to lower voter turnout.
Those concerns proved to be unfounded, DeBeauvoir says, and today most of Oregon, Washington and a few other states have adopted by-mail voting. “They don't have the problems that people were concerned about at first,” DeBeauvoir says. “They've not seen any fraud that anybody can detect, and there's not been any undue influence that they've had complaints about.”
All states have some kind of by-mail voting system, but only Oregon, Washington, California and Colorado have mail-only elections, DeBeauvoir says. “It's a fledgling idea right now, and it's one that's gaining in interest,” she says. “Mostly, it's the cost savings [that attract interest]. The cost savings are substantial for a jurisdiction, whether you're a city or you're talking about statewide.” Those cost savings occur because fewer staff have to be hired to conduct a mail-only election, DeBeauvoir says.
Colorado has held mail-only elections in November on odd years for the last few years, says Pam Schneider, Loudon County, Colo., Clerk and Recorder. This year, the state changed the law to allow mail-only elections in all jurisdictions on even years with primary and general elections, so Loudon County will conduct the primary election this August by mail only, Schneider says.
Loudon County's last in-person general election in November 2008 cost the county $90,604. But, its 2009 mail-ballot election cost $59,500. “In this economic environment that we are in, saving money where we can but still providing quality and transparent elections is our goal,” Schneider says.
THE FINAL HOLD OUT
Oregon, the state where mail-only elections began, uses that system exclusively, while neighboring Washington has almost completely adopted the system. However, in Pierce County, about 15 percent of voters still prefer heading to the polls on election day, according to the Washington Secretary of State's Office.