Can the future of our democracy be mailed in?
More specifically, could the most important act in our cherished democratic process — voting — be enhanced by conducting some (or all) elections solely by mail?
Those are broad questions, but we’re seeing that, at least in some limited examples, exercising democracy by mail is producing encouraging results.
A Press & Dakotan story last week reported how some area Nebraska counties, including Cedar and Knox, are embracing mail-only balloting for all elections. The move was based on limited exercises in local races in which overall voter participation via mail was greater than conventionally-held elections with polls and poll workers.
For instance, during last fall’s general election, Knox County officials say they saw higher participation from precincts where votes were mailed in versus other precincts with polling stations.
Now, both Cedar and Knox counties will embrace mail-only balloting beginning with the May 2020 primary. The counties may also seek to use the postal process in special elections.
Overall, 17 counties in Nebraska are now conducting at least some elections, or portions of elections, via the mail.
The mail-only option for elections was set up in Nebraska as a means of boosting turnout in sparely populated rural counties. Qualifying counties may file to enact the process.
In theory, the advantages of mail-in balloting are clear. Like early voting, the mail-in process caters to voters’ lifestyles and schedules to make participation in an election easier — which should always be the goal of election officials.
Another advantage is that, by mailing ballots to voters, those constituents then have the time to actually study the ballots and the issues more carefully.
The process also reduces costs, as it spares a county from having to employ and train polling workers. It’s a savings that offsets the postage cost that the process requires in getting ballots out to constituents.
That being said, we have heard anecdotally that there can be a few drawbacks with this process on the constituent end. We’ve been told that the mailed-out ballots do not include postage-paid, addressed return envelopes. It’s been reported that the returning envelopes with the ballots must be addressed accurately, and postal workers can’t make a special or extraordinary effort to find the proper address. Obviously, that’s something that doesn’t come up when voters go to the polls. Also, a mobile society means it’s imperative for voters who move to make sure to let county election officials know precisely where their mailing address is.
Still, the overall process of mail-only elections has some intriguing applications in rural counties. We recommend that South Dakota officials keep an eye on Nebraska’s experience as the process unfolds and expands to our south.