Should Oklahoma adopt all voting-by-mail elections? (Guest Post: Cassidy Hamilton)

Cassidy Hamilton is one of the 2014-2015 OK Policy Research Fellows. Cassidy graduated magna cum laude with a degree in Economics and is currently pursuing a Masters of Public Administration at the University of Oklahoma. She has also contributed a blog post on infant mortalityvote-by-mail.

Last year, Oklahoma was ranked 49th in the nation in voter engagement in a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Less than half of eligible Oklahomans voted in the 2012 presidential election and only three-fourths of eligible Oklahomans are even registered, putting Oklahoma 46th nationally in voter registration.

To address our state’s poor voter participation, State Senator David Holt introduced a package of ten bills that if enacted, would fundamentally restructure Oklahoma’s election process. These bills ranged from SB 313, which would establish and allow online voter registration, to SB 310, which would transition Oklahoma to conduct its elections entirely by mail by 2020.

The bill to move towards vote-by-mail elections failed even to gain a committee hearing in the Senate, but had it been passed into law, it would have made Oklahoma the fourth state to conduct elections entirely by mail—joining Oregon, which adopted vote-by-mail in 1998, Washington (2011) and Colorado (2013).

In an email exchange with Senator Holt, he explained: “Everything I proposed was motivated by a desire to increase our woeful turnout.” Whether or not implementing voting by mail would succeed in this mission is uncertain, however.

In 1998, Oregon voters overwhelmingly passed the citizen-sponsored Ballot Measure 60 to conduct elections exclusively by mail. Initial studies showed drastic improvement in Oregon’s already above-average turnout, but later studies tempered their evaluation of the program’s success, especially in special elections. Still, the majority of studies on Oregon have demonstrated measurable improvement in turnout.

[pullquote]”When only local elections are on the ballot, Oklahoma’s typical voter turnout averages less than 8 percent.”[/pullquote]Studies that have analyzed the effects of vote-by-mail in other states and counties have shown large increases in turnout on local, low-salience and primary elections especially. In these types of elections, turnout in Oklahoma especially suffers— according to the National Conference on Citizenship, when only local elections are on the ballot, the typical voter turnout averages less than 8 percent. In addition, the cost of a vote-by-mail election is nearly 30 percent less than the cost of a polling place election, according to Oregon’s Secretary of State. Such cost savings could be especially attractive in Oklahoma, given our frequent budget shortfalls.

However, some opponents of vote-by-mail argue it would increase voter fraud and decrease civic participation. Some argue that voters themselves will be more likely to purposefully engage in fraud (a Heritage Foundation researcher has called vote-by-mail “thieves’ tool of choice”). Others say vote-by-mail is unreliable, or they are wary of the new discretionary authority of county election boards to nullify ballots they deem invalid. While most proponents of vote-by-mail contend it would increase turnout among minority groups, some studies have demonstrated opposite effects. Others argue it could disenfranchise the population most affected by Election Day inconvenience—the poor or the homeless whose home addresses may be inconstant. It should be noted that poor and homeless citizens face obstacles to voting under almost any system, from voter ID laws to long lines on Election Day. A recurring complaint regarding any absentee voting system is that voters may experience undue coercion without the poll booth’s privacy.

Senator Holt was not surprised that his vote-by-mail proposal failed to gain traction this year. “I knew SB 310 was a bold proposal, considering the cautious nature of our political culture, and the natural desire for those in power to retain the system that got them there. But I still wanted to introduce the idea into the discourse,” he wrote. Given the Legislature’s tendency to whittle down ambitious bills, SB 310’s failure was almost given; however, by throwing ideas about election reform at the Legislature, Holt’s election package found a couple that seems to have stuck: online voter registration was approved by the Legislature and has been signed by the Governor and a bill to consolidate local elections has been sent to conference committee.

While these incremental reform measures are welcome additions to Oklahoma’s political landscape, they’re hardly game changers. Oregon, the state that pioneered vote-by-mail, recently passed legislation that automatically registers to vote all adult citizens with driver’s licenses. North Dakota doesn’t require that voters register to vote at all, and ten states plus D.C. allow citizens to register on the same day they vote. A growing number of states allow voters to choose if they’d like their ballots delivered by mail for all elections – Sen. Holt’s bill to allow permanent absentee ballot status passed the Senate but was killed in the House. Oklahoma now joins half the country in providing online voter registration, but any hope of significantly improving electoral participation in this state may depend on more far-reaching changes to the election process.

Learn More // Do More


The opinions stated in guest articles are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.