Is postage a barrier to voting by mail? SB1586 in Oregon will require postage paid for VBM

Senate Bill 1586
, which will require Oregon election officials to provide postage paid envelopes for the return of vote by mail ballots, was reported out of the Senate Rules Committee and is making its way to the floor will be discussed in a public hearing tomorrow, Feb. 24.

This is an interesting bill.  At first blush, it seems like a reasonable accommodation to make voting easier.  But as we’ve learned in many cases, making voting easier often does not increase turnout.  Adam Berinsky summarizes the situation nicely:

The problem, I believe, is that when we talk about the “costs” of voting, we have been thinking about the wrong kinds of costs—the direct costs of registering to vote and casting a ballot. Most politicians and scholars have focused reform efforts on these tangible barriers to voting, making it easier for all citizens to vote, regardless of their personal circumstances. But, as I have argued elsewhere, the more significant costs of participation are the cognitive costs of becoming involved with and informed about the political world. Studies of voting from the last 60 years make this point clear. Political interest and engagement, after all, determine to a large extent who votes and who does not.

The specifics of adding a pre-paid envelope can be a lot more complicated and the impact more difficult to predict than they might appear at first blush.

A large proportion of Oregon voters do not return their ballots by mail–they drop them off at county offices or at drop boxes.  56% of Oregon voters in the 2014 Survey of the Performance of American Elections report that they returned their ballots in person, and these data align closely to state figures.  The percentage returning by means other than mail have been creeping upwards in recent years, according to the Oregon Division of Elections.

BallotMethodDelivery_2014This had led Phil Keisling, the granddaddy of vote by mail in Oregon, to call the system “Universal Vote By Mail”, not voting by mail, because what is key is universal ballot delivery, not return by the postal service.  The point here is that prepaid postage will impact a shrinking portion of the current voting population.

Untitled 2In order to understand the reasons for the choice to hand drop better, I coded the 117 SPAE survey responses into four categories: convenience (“close by”, “on my commute”, “easy”), cost (“save money”, “I didn’t have a stamp”, “cheaper”), too late to mail (“last minute”, “make sure it gets there on time”), habit (“Always do it this way”, “In Oregon we can drop it off”), and security (“don’t trust the post office”, “mail theft”, “make sure it’s counted”).  I was very generous in coding cost so that even if the reason started with another rationale, any mention of costs, dollars, expenses, “didn’t have a stamp”, etc was coded as cost.

Most voters said they chose to return their ballots by mail because it was more convenient or because they had security concerns.  Just under 20%, or 11.8% of all voters (20% of the 59% who dropped their ballots) said they returned their ballots by mail due to cost or inability to get a stamp .  11.8% is not minimal, but these 11.8% also found it possible to return the ballot by other means.  Unfortunately, we have no information about those who chose not to vote at all because they couldn’t buy a stamp.

The Oregon Bus Project is advocating for this legislation, and they claim that young people today don’t know where to buy stamps or can’t because it’s too inconvenient:

Because post offices have been closing, many Oregonians must go out of their way to purchase a stamp in order to cast a ballot. Millennials often go to school, work multiple jobs, and are not available to go to the post office during business hours, leaving them with few options.

This claim stretches credulity.  Stamps can be purchased at any grocery and many convenience stores, most of which (at least in Portland metro) are open 24 hours.  It may be harder for rural voters to purchase stamps, but I suspect that rural voters are much more used to using the postal service on a regular basis.

Even if the state does require paid postage, there’s another wrinkle–business mail is handled differently than first class mail, and this could require other changes to Oregon’s vote by mail system.  A study conducted by the California Voting Foundation showed that prepaid postage slowed the processing of ballots because of the way business mail has to be processed and billed (see Section IV.6 of this report (boldface added)

All three counties have postal accounts to cover additional postage costs (though they don’t advertise it). The “postage due” costs were relatively minimal in all counties, typically amounting to a few hundred dollars in a major election. While some have suggested providing postage-paid envelopes to all VBM voters (and not just those overseas or living in an all vote-by-mail precinct as current law provides), doing so can actually delay VBM ballot processing since postage paid mail is typically sent business class, not first class. In addition, the cost must be debited from the account holder before the mail piece can be delivered. Ensuring postage-paid mail is debited from the correct account adds extra time to ballot processing and can further delay the return of voted ballots.

Moving to pre-paid mail may have to be accompanied by changes in the timeline for vote by mail ballots–when they are mailed out and when they can be returned (possibly including a provision that would only require ballots to be postmarked by election day). There’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s a consequence of the change that needs to be addressed.

Requiring pre-paid postage may be a very reasonable improvement to Oregon’s vote by mail system. By lowering the barrier to returning the ballot, it could help a small number of citizens who currently find it too expensive or inconvenient to purchase a stamp and can’t drop off their ballot.  All indications, however, are that the impact will be quite low. What we do know for certain is that the change would cost the state approximately $1.2 million per election.

I’ve often heard advocates argue that “you cannot put a price on the right to vote,” and in principle this is true, but in practice, everything has a cost, and we have to evaluate those costs relative to other ways we can improve elections.

Let me close by referencing another reform that I am in the midst of examining–ballot tracking.  Ballot tracking was recommended by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration as a way to address public concerns about the security of the vote by mail ballots, and has been adopted by a number of jurisdictions that handle large numbers of vote by mail ballots.  Ballot tracking systems have been put in place by a number of jurisdictions that use voting by mail.  Ballot Trace, for example, used by Denver County, has won national awards.

But the question needs to be asked: does ballot tracking really improve public faith and confidence in the system?   Does anyone really track their ballots?  Indications thus far are that only a tiny percentage of voters actually use the ballot tracking systems.  Is this a solution in search of a problem?  Before we spend millions of dollars on free postage paid envelopes or ballot tracking systems, we should have a good answer to these questions.