Pushing the Envelope

Source: Josh Goodman, Governing, May 2008

Every year, more people vote by mail. Could the hallowed American polling place be a dinosaur?

When his state holds its primaries later this month, Bill Bradbury will be in charge of the details. That’s part of his role as secretary of state, a job that’s become a source of high anxiety for election officials almost everywhere. But Bradbury isn’t expecting a stressful time. He’s not fretting over the security of voting machines. He isn’t concerned about hiring poll workers. In fact, he doesn’t even care who votes on Election Day.

It’s not because he’s neglecting his duties. It’s because Bradbury is running an election in Oregon, the only state in the country where all voting is by mail. Bradbury helped design the system, and he may be its biggest cheerleader. “It’s really marvelous,” he says. “We basically have avoided a lot of the controversy that has swirled around elections for the last eight years.”

Oregon’s experience has other states wondering whether they should try postal voting. But the truth is, many of them already are. While Oregon’s system of voting exclusively by mail remains unique, obstacles to absentee voting are disappearing throughout the country. In many states, all you have to do is ask for an absentee ballot to get one. You don’t need a reason. The result is that citizens are casting more of their ballots through the mailbox every year. Not too many people seem to have noticed, but the traditional precinct election, where everyone shows up on the appointed day, is in the process of decline.

The question now is whether the hybrid system most states use — part mail-in, part face to face — is a final destination or just an intermediate step. Increasing numbers of election officials are wondering whether their jobs would be simpler and their elections smoother if they just did what Oregon has done.

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