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Thursday, November 03, 2016

How I Voted in Washington State

Every election, we hear stories about the crazy complications facing both voters and election administrators. Long lines. Voter intimidation. Poll-worker confusion. Ballot selfies. Here’s a story that’s much less exciting. It’s the story of how I voted in Washington State.

Around October 24, I received my ballot in the mail. It’s like an absentee ballot. But I didn’t receive this ballot because I had requested one; to the contrary, vote-by-mail is the default here in Washington. My own voting process began with a hunt for that most precious of spaces in my home (that is, a space prominent enough to be helpful, but sufficiently out-of-the-way for the kids not to have commandeered it), where I set the ballot aside until I had an evening free. Then, with a touch of dramatic flair, I spread my tools of democracy across the dining room table—my ballot, my voting guide, my laptop, and my chocolate—and I filled out the ballot as best I could, making notes on where I needed more information. (People voting in similarly initiative-happy states will understand.) Over the next few days, I took the time I needed to gather the missing information—including through civic-minded discussion with family and friends—and eventually completed the ballot. I signed it, sealed it, and by the end of last week, found a stamp for it and put it in the mail. That was the end of the matter until yesterday, when I decided to confirm that everything was fine. To that end, I Googled “confirm vote received washington state.” This slapdash search brought me to a website where I was able to type in my basic information and immediately receive an update on my ballot. Here’s the message I received:

  • We have received your ballot, your signature has been verified, and your ballot will be counted.
  • Thank you for voting.

You’re welcome! All done, so pleasant and straightforward, a week before the election. I encountered no lines, no intimidation, no poll-worker confusion, and no selfies. (Notwithstanding the fact that our Secretary of State has assured us that, in Washington, ballot selfies are “not directly prohibited.”)

Are there potential problems with voting in this way? Of course; no system is perfect. Whenever a jurisdiction creates the possibility that its voters won’t vote in private (i.e., whenever voting isn’t necessarily done in secret), there’s an increased chance of both vote buying and vote coercion. (To understand why, imagine what you’d need in order to effectively buy or coerce a vote. At the top of the list: some way of verifying that your co-conspirators/victims actually voted the way you wanted them to.) Moreover, while voter fraud is exceedingly rare in this country, the voter fraud that does exist is more likely to occur via absentee ballot than by in-person voting. So all else being equal, mail-in states would seem to have an increased susceptibility to fraudulent voting. An additional problem with mail-in ballots relates to voters (for example, people who are homeless) who have difficulty voting by mail—though this is less of a structural concern, given that there are ways for a mail-in jurisdiction to accommodate such individuals. The more intractable issues relate to the potential for voter fraud, vote coercion, and vote buying.

Yet Washington State does not suffer from widespread problems relating to fraud, coercion, or vote buying. (Before anyone posts a link purporting to contradict this assertion, please confirm that the link in question directs to a reliable source actually supporting a different conclusion; there’s a lot of misdirection out there.) And what Washington definitely does not suffer from is all the problems associated with trying to get millions of people to go to the same limited number of locations to do the same thing at more-or-less the same time—i.e., all the problems associated with in-person voting. From my perspective, mail-in ballots are great for voters. Unless or until I learn that the problems theoretically associated with this form of voting (including the aforementioned buying, coercing, and defrauding) actually materialize, I will continue to support the practice, and be grateful that my state has adopted it.

Posted by Lisa Manheim on November 3, 2016 at 12:30 AM in Current Affairs, Law and Politics | Permalink

Comments

"Yet Washington State does not suffer from widespread problems relating to fraud, coercion, or vote buying."

What kind of evidence would you expect to be able to find in a hypothetical universe where Washington State did suffer from relatively widespread voter coercion of the intimate partner variety?

Posted by: Brad | Nov 3, 2016 12:59:20 PM

It wouldn't be straightforward to uncover evidence like that, in part due to the closeness of the relationships between the perpetrators and the victims and in part because your hypothetical assumes a large number of isolated violations of the election laws, rather than a overarching conspiracy. But I would think that if this phenomenon were truly widespread, there would be substantial anecdotal evidence. I also could imagine that statisticians might be able to design models to test whether the voting results were consistent with a large problem -- perhaps by looking to jurisdictions split between in-person and absentee voting to see if there were patterns over time that might track the use of absentee ballots. But I agree with what you've implied here (that is, that it would be difficult to uncover that sort of evidence).

Posted by: Lisa Manheim | Nov 3, 2016 4:00:45 PM

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