After Oct. 14’s statewide elections, Louisiana officials and pundits scolded Louisiana residents as unengaged citizens. Less than one in five eligible Louisiana voters cast a ballot. Here in The Advocate, Professor G. Pearson Cross said, “The president’s tweets are attention-grabbing. Who is going to be treasurer is . . . boring.” According to a Nov. 4 piece by Mark Ballard, the turnout made Secretary of State Tom Schedler, the state’s chief elections officer, “downright depressed.” By this line of thinking, Louisiana voters can’t be bothered to do their civic duty. Most everyone wishes that more people voted. Louisiana can and should lead the way in making it easier for people to vote without increasing the risk of fraud. We can increase voter turnout and save the state money with vote by mail.
Increased turnout means increased accountability. Louisiana’s history of corruption means we need more accountability. Engaged citizens must hold their representatives accountable on issues from traffic in Baton Rouge to the state budget to New Orleans street flooding. Increased voter turnout gets more people doing so — and the best way to increase turnout comes in vote by mail.
When a state embraces vote by mail, all registered voters get mailed a ballot about a month before the election. As with an absentee ballot, voters need to sign an affidavit testifying to the ballot’s validity. Then they drop the ballot off at any mailbox or the polls on election day. Those who prefer in-person voting can vote either early or on election day.
Other states have seen success with vote by mail. In California, in 2012 for the first time, more than five out of every 10 voters in our largest state voted by mail. If California can implement vote by mail statewide, then Louisiana can certainly do it here.
Louisiana would see three key benefits from vote by mail.
First, vote by mail increases voter turnout. A Washington study found that voter turnout may increase by as much as 15 percentage points. This could make Louisiana a top 10 state for voter turnout. It turns out that convenience makes a difference. People really love voting at home in just five minutes. You wouldn’t even have to drive to the polls to vote.
Second, vote by mail makes elections more secure. Understandably, people are scared about fraud, especially double-voting. But vote by mail allows the state to easily catch duplicated votes easily with bar code scanning systems. Oregon, for example, has investigated every supposed instance of people voting twice, and found that the numbers have been incredibly small — in single digits in presidential elections.
In fact, vote by mail increases electoral integrity. For example, after the 2016 elections, several reports noted how certain districts in crucial swing states in the upper Midwest could not do recounts because their procedures didn’t allow for double-checking paper ballots. But vote by mail has secure storage and paper copies, allowing for a recount. Races with razor-thin margins, like the 112-vote New Orleans City Council District C Race this year, would gain credibility because officials could verify using paper copies.
Third, vote by mail actually saves money. Typically, as seen in Oregon and Washington, people favor the mailbox over the ballot box. Over time, Louisiana can save money by decreasing poll workers and avoiding wear and tear on voting machines.
Many may still worry about voter fraud. A husband could fill out the ballot for his wife, or a campaign could intentionally destroy ballots from certain neighborhoods. While fraud could plausibly happen, evidence shows that vote by mail has no more fraud than other methods. Mailing ballots should not increase voter fraud.
Instead of just scolding voters about failing to vote, let’s do something about it. Allow everyone to vote by mail. The Louisiana Legislature should advance this reform in next year’s session. Then we’ll have more Louisiana residents using the ballot box to hold their elected officials accountable. We could definitely use some more of that.
Bob Payne, a former teacher in St. Bernard Parish schools and director with New Orleans College Prep, is a second-year masters in public policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.