Friday, November 28, 2014

City Council – Vote by Mail Only

vote-by-mail 2The Lt. Governor has asked cities to consider implementing vote-by-mail-only for next year’s municipal elections. All registered voters would receive a ballot in the mail. The ballot would need to be mailed or submitted to the city prior to or on “election” day. This would be the only means of casting a ballot.

The city recorder asked each councilman to share their concerns (if any) prior to the upcoming city council meeting (2-Dec-2014), where this will be discussed. If you have a viewpoint on this issue please attend and share it with the council.

Here is a copy of the email I sent:

Here are my thoughts on vote-by mail-only. I am not inclined at the moment to support it for the following reasons; no order of priority:

  • Increased potential for election fraud:

    • The voter registration lists have a lot of inaccurate information, meaning ballots will be sent to incorrect addresses. Although ballots will not be forwarded, it does mean that some people will have access to ballots that are not theirs and thus creates the opportunity for fraud. [Note, the county does not attempt to revalidate a registration until an individual has not voted in at least 2 presidential election cycles. Also, in a recent list for our area I found errors in 35% of the registered voter records]

    • Not all voter records have associated signatures according to the clerk I spoke with. There would need to be a plan in place to rectify this before a blanket vote-by-mail is implemented.

    • The process of validating mail-in ballots is one where an individual, without oversight (i.e someone else witnessing the process), manually compares signatures. This is both time consuming and subject to human error.

  • Because mail-in ballots are not necessarily filled out in private it is possible that a parent or spouse can unduly influence the vote of the other party.

  • Mailing ballots 30 or 45 days before an election increases the length of campaigns and ends up raising the cost both in terms of time and dollars for candidates. Whenever the cost is increased the pool of candidates willing to run is reduced.

General thoughts:

  • I don't believe that the decline in voter turnout is tied to the ease of voting. 1964, was the highest voting year in Utah and it predated early voting.  See stats below. There are other factors at play – not quite sure what these are. Those should be identified and addressed first if increasing turnout is the primary objective.

  • I don't believe that vote-by-mail will create more informed voters. Having a ballot mailed to an individual does not increase their ability to look up information on the Internet, attend meetings, or otherwise make it easier to contact candidates. In fact it could be argued that early voting will increase the number of uniformed/under-informed voters since providing people the opportunity to vote prior to "election day" means that they may miss information and opportunities to interact with candidates that will come up after they cast their ballot.

  • I don't believe that vote-by-mail will save the city money as it will require that at least two people scrutinize every ballot cast and make a judgment call as to the validity of the signature on the ballot (again adding the possibility of human error).  [Currently only one person is used to validate signatures on absentee ballots; there should be two in my view].

In 1964 Utah turnout was 78.5% (as measured using the number of voters  divided by the number of eligible rather than registered voters). Congressional election voter turnout (as shown below) has declined since 1962 from a high of 86% (1966) to a low of 45% (2006). See also attached spreadsheet.

1962-2014 Utah Congressional Election Turnout

The primary motive for moving to vote-by-mail-only is to increase voter turnout. It is true that in 6 out of 6 of the cities and counties where this has been tried in Utah turnout as measured by percentage of registered voters rose when compared with the previous election. However,  it is also true that in 6 out of 6 of those areas the number of registered voters declined, while in 4 out of 6 the population increased. This means that simply using the % turnout provide a somewhat distorted view. Note, I am assuming the decline in registered voters was a result of a concerted effort to clean up the voter list.

Looking at the outcomes when population growth is combined with the change in the number of votes cast shows the following:

  • Cache county had a net decline of around 10%
  • Garfield, Grand, and Wayne counties had a small uptick of around 3%,
  • Cottonwood Heights and West Jordan had significant growth (126% and 64%). For Cottonwood Heights (the vote-by-mail election included a contested mayoral race while the previous election had an uncontested mayoral race.

Washington State has utilized vote-by-mail-only in 38 of 39 counties since 2009. The last county (Pierce) went to vote-by-mail in 2014. In 2010 voter turnout based on the number of eligible voters was 54.3% in 2014 the turnout was 38.60%. 2006 turnout was 47.3%.

Oregon State has had vote-by-mail-only since 2000. The chart below shows that no vote-by-mail-only turnout (yellow) exceeded the 1994 turnout and the 2014 turnout declined from 52.6%% in 2010 to 48.6%.

Oregon Congressional Election Turnout

Colorado went to vote-by-mail-only in 2014. Their turnout this year was 52.4% vs. 51.7% in 2010, a 0.7% increase.

It may very well be that any turnout gain from transitioning to vote-by-mail is short-lived. I’m reminded of an experiment done in the 1930’s on productivity. The amount of lighting in a factory was increased and productivity improved. Later when lighting was returned to its previous state, productivity improved again.The mere fact that something changed was a potential cause for productivity to improve (for more details see “The Opportunity in Problems”).

Relative to turnout, the bottom line for me is that the long term turnout benefits are debatable. I don’t think there is any evidence to suggest that “ease of access” is the primary cause for a 50 year decline in voter turnout. Other advantages cited by the Lt. Governor’s office are:

  • Cost: The cost advantage for Highland city is unclear at the moment. The cost of manually verifying signatures for all ballots and properly handling the ballots prior to the count have not been determined. For county and state-wide elections it would likely be a money saver and it certainly will save voters time.
  • Better informed voters: I really find it hard to understand how vote-by-mail improves anyone’s ability or incentivizes anybody to become more informed on issues or candidates.

I think treating the symptom of low voter turnout by making it easier to vote does little to create a more engaged and informed electorate and may mask the real “disease” for a short period time. We need more engaged and informed voters. What do you believe is the cause of the long-term decline in voter turnout? What do you think can be done have a more engaged electorate?


Utah Data:

Utah Vote by Mail


  1. What a truly horrible idea. To get ballots in the mail guarantees that those who aren't taking the time to study candidates actually have a chance to become the world's most dangerous sound-bite voters. We don't need more voters. We need more informed citizens. Informed citizens become voters.

  2. I am reminded of a phrase from Thomas Paine's, The Crisis: "What we obtain to cheap, we esteem too lightly." If we treat low voter turnout as the disease instead of what I believe is a symptom of complacency and lack of understanding then to the extend we increase turnout be making it easier to vote, we will simply be adding uninformed voters to the process. Will that improve government or just contribute to "fast food politics?" I agree with Oak that this is not a great idea.

  3. As government becomes more centralized, the less inclined people are to vote. As government becomes more corrupt, the less inclined people are to vote. The more the two major parties act/govern like each other, the less inclined people are to vote. Decentralize government, clean it up and give people a clear choice and the percent voting will go up. Vote by mail is the treatment for a symptom that will probably have side effects rather than a remedy for the cause of the ailment.

    Sending ballots out 30 to 45 days early can only increase uninformed voter participation. In Highland, political signs are not allowed more than 30 days before election day. That's potentially 15 days AFTER voters can cast ballots. 100% vote by mail seems to be a really bad idea.
    Devirl Barfuss


Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts regarding this post.