Vote by mail is a form of postal voting. Ballot papers get distributed to electors or returned by post instead of having qualified persons arrive at a polling station to cast a ballot. Most communities require that any postal votes be distributed and placed in the return mail before an upcoming election day. Some jurisdictions refer to this work as a form of early voting or an absentee ballot.
This model has evolved in many U.S. communities to become the exclusive method of voting that’s used. Then voters can either return the ballot in the mail, drop it off in person at a secure dropbox, or hand it over to a volunteer at a designated voting center.
The first example of postal voting happened in Western Australia in 1877. A follow-up method in 1890 in Southern Australia worked to fix the initial issues with the system. Although there have been instances of electoral fraud when using this method, it is generally treated as a secure form of voting.
Several advantages and disadvantages of voting by mail exist that are worth taking into consideration.
List of the Advantages of Vote by Mail
1. You get to fill out your ballot at a time that works for you.
When you take advantage of postal voting, then you can avoid going to an in-person location to cast a ballot. That means you don’t need to worry about standing in a long line of people during a working day so that you can vote. You can open the ballot at home, complete it on your own time, and then return it by mail (sometimes with postage paid) before the election deadline. That means it only takes a few minutes to complete a task that would take several hours in some areas.
2. There are minimal issues with voter fraud when using this method.
About 25% of the votes cast in U.S. elections in 2016 involves vote by mail strategies. Absentee ballots have been available in more than a dozen states for several decades. Officials estimate that over 250 million votes have been cast through global postal services. The documented instances of abuse, coercion, or fraud barely register as a percentage.
Oregon has led the way in postal voting, sending out over 100 million ballots since 2000. There have been about 12 cases of proven fraud during that time, resulting in a 0.00000012% error rate. That means you’re less likely to experience an inaccurate outcome when voting in this method when compared to in-person ballots.
3. It is a convenient option to use.
Voting by mail allows people who are away from home for any reason to cast a ballot in a local election. It’s also significantly more convenient to use this method than waiting for several hours at a local polling station. Although there could be delays in delivery that prevent some votes from getting counted, most voters can avoid that problem by taking their ballot to a local dropbox for consideration.
That means there is a decrease in the barriers that stop people from voting, such as a lack of child care, and illness, or confusion about where they should cast an in-person ballot.
4. Vote by mail costs less for most jurisdictions that implement this method.
The jurisdictions and states that have gone to an all-mail election format note that they’ve achieved a significant level of savings with this approach. Money is no longer needed for recruiting, training, and paying workers who maintain polling places on election day. When Montana first looked at postal voting as a viable alternative in 2011, the association of recorders and clerks estimated that the state could save $2 million or more with each election cycle.
County surveys in Colorado where all-mail voting takes place found that it costs 19% less to use postal methods instead of in-person polling stations.
5. It increases participation rates.
When postal voting is possible in a jurisdiction, then the participation rates in each election increases. This advantage is the reason why most communities authorize this option for local and special elections. It allows every registered voter a convenient way to have their voice heard on specific issues. Since voters have a longer time to study their ballot and answer questions, this approach provides a more accurate picture of what a community wants to see as an outcome.
The combined average voter turnout in 1990 for the state primaries in Washington was 38%. When those areas went to an all mail-in ballot, the combined turnout rose to 53%. That means almost 40% more people voted in total, and one county saw its participation rate rise to 68%.
6. Vote by mail reduces the political influences that can impact votes.
When postal voting is available to registered voters, then the adverse influences that can impact results disappear. No one needs to worry about what others think about their political leanings because the vote takes place at home. It is impossible to suppress specific voter demographics when using this approach because everyone gets a ballot. That means each person can clearly express their views about which party should be in charge without feeling like their family members or friends will offer repercussions from their choices.
7. It can deter extremist points of view.
Vote by mail systems encourage people who have centrist ideas to vote because it takes away the momentum from the extreme right or left. People who hold views that go toward the far right or left tend to vote in person as a way to show solidarity, which means the moderates are typically staying at home – even though they are the majority. The places where postal voting receives the most suppression tends to be in the precincts where there’s a specific desire to govern in a particular way.
List of the Disadvantages of Vote by Mail
1. Voters have different deadlines that they must meet with this option.
The primary disadvantage with postal voting is that there are different deadlines for you to meet with your ballot. It is your responsibility to ensure that your vote gets received or postmarked on time. If you struggle to remember deadlines, then it might be a better option to consider in-person early voting if your community or state allows it.
The election dates and deadlines are highly variable, so you might need to get your postal vote in the mail up to a full week before an election. You can always verify this information in your local district.
2. You might need to request a postal ballot.
Some communities automatically mail out the ballots for an upcoming election to every registered voter. There are states that print voter guides that come with the postal voting method so that everyone can have as much information as possible to cast an empowered ballot. You might not live in one of those jurisdictions, which means you may need to make a formal request to receive a postal ballot.
If you don’t make that request on time, then you won’t get to participate in this voting option. The cutoff date for postal voting requests is often a week before a scheduled election, but it could be a month or more in some areas.
3. Some ballots run the risk of getting lost.
Unlike the votes take place at in-person polling stations, absentee and vote by mail ballots wind up being uncounted. There are a variety of reasons that can result in this outcoming, ranging from the vote arriving late to the presence of an invalid signature. Some voters might forget to sign their envelope or ballot, invalidating their choices.
During a November 2017 election in Virginia, a tight race came down to an 82-vote lead. Despite election officials contacting the post office hourly about absentee ballots, there were 55 uncounted ones delivered the day after the election. They didn’t get counted because the law of the state specifically says all of the votes must be in-hand on election day.
4. The biggest savings occur when voters pay for the postage.
Although voting by mail is a cost-effective strategy, the states that offer this option typically pay for the return postage for a ballot. That means a significant portion of the administration savings disappear entirely. Counties must also ensure that their voter rolls are consistently updated since many households move frequently throughout the country.
The only way to avoid this disadvantage is to have the voters pay for postage out-of-pocket. When that requirement is present, the response rates can drop dramatically for an election.
5. Security is a significant concern for postal voting.
The security of a dropbox can be extremely questionable in some communities. It may consist of a metal container that gets secured by a simple padlock. That means an individual with a pair of bolt cutters could break into the box, manipulate the ballots, or make them disappear entirely.
Someone could get the mailed ballots, steam the envelopes open, and then adjust the votes based on their personal preferences. Although these issues are admittedly rare, it is a problem that must get taken into consideration.
6. It is not an option that’s available to everyone.
Absentee ballots are the most popular way to vote by mail. This option is available to those in valid jurisdictions who apply for a ballot because they will be out of town during Election Day. Outside of this option, only three states offer the opportunity for everyone to participate in postal voting.
Idaho allows mail-in voting from precincts that only have 125 registered voters or less. Hawaii has some of the lowest turnout rates in the country, so postal voting is permitted for special and local elections. This option is sometimes only available when candidates run unopposed.
7. Postal voting encounters more accuracy errors.
Vote by mail efforts experience several issues directly related to accuracy. Voters can make errors on their ballots, the postal service can fail to deliver, and administrators can lose the paperwork. Although there are specific steps that communities can take to prevent these problems from impacting the outcome of an election, the problems can eventually create adverse impacts on the integrity of an election.
Election administrators report that they must reject about 1% of the ballots cast in the United States because of errors. When mail-in or absentee ballots are getting counted, the inadmissible rate rises to 2%. The two most common issues seen are a failure to sign their affidavit and accidentally voting twice.
8. Absentee ballots are not always received after a valid request.
Research from MIT regarding vote by mail programs found that up to 3.9 million absentee ballots were not received in 2008 after a valid request. Another 2.9 million that were given to voters did not get returned for counting. An additional 800,000 ballots were rejected because of errors, mistakes, or omissions on the part of the voter. That means 35.5 million requests during the presidential election that year led to only 27.9 million being counted. That means 21% of all requests got taken out of the system before the counting process even began.
9. Voters have less confidence in the accuracy of vote by mail systems.
When voters got asked if they felt like their ballots cast by mail would get counted by local administrators, only 57% of respondents said that they felt confident in that outcome. 74% of voters who went to an in-person polling place said that they felt like their vote was getting counted.
The voters in Washington State and Oregon, which is where universal vote-by-mail systems exist, are the least confident in the idea that their cast ballots are getting counted.
10. A voter’s signature must match from their registration.
If a voter’s signature on their affidavit doesn’t match what is on their voter registration card, then there is a higher risk of the ballot getting rejected. Some jurisdictions might offer a follow up that requests an explanation for the discrepancy, but this outcome doesn’t always happen. If a witness signature is necessary, then that issue doubles the chances that rejection will occur with the postal voting effort.
When a jurisdiction requires a privacy envelope inside of a mailing device, a voter who fails to include both items may also have their vote invalidated.
11. It encourages tactical voting.
Postal voting in two-party systems encourages voters to be tactical with their ballot. This issue was especially prevalent during the 2016 presidential election in the United States. People were primarily voting against Clinton or Trump instead of casting a ballot for their preferred candidate. That creates a wasteful outcome because votes get cast for losing candidates or policies, which makes it feel like the effort to send in a vote was a waste of time – and money.
About two dozen U.S. states currently allow certain elections to be conducted entirely by mail. Washington State, Colorado, and Oregon are moving toward an all-mail election format that includes online ballots in some areas.
When people have the opportunity to vote at home, then they can take their time when going through the ballot. It allows for a thorough examination of each issue so that voters feel confident with their selections. This process can also weaken the traditional civic experiences of voting with neighbors at local polling places.
The advantages and disadvantages of vote by mail are rife with misconceptions and distrust. Although there are moments of unreliability and fraud, these issues occur with every other voting method. That’s why the benefits often outweigh the problems when evaluating this process.
Blog Post Author Credentials
Louise Gaille is the author of this post. She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Washington. In addition to being a seasoned writer, Louise has almost a decade of experience in Banking and Finance. If you have any suggestions on how to make this post better, then go here to contact our team.