After deciding to vote early in last year’s election, my wife and I stood in line for more than three hours at a Charleston shopping center early voting facility. The first hour was spent huddling in line under an umbrella to ward off the rain.
What is now proposed in our Legislature is the state spending more than $50 million for new voting machines that would include a paper trail for every vote that is cast. A far better alternative would be a vote-by-mail system, as already proven in Oregon, a vote-by-mail pioneer in 1998, and since adopted by the states of Washington and Colorado.
When you’re voting at home, there’s no standing in line or having to rush to the polls after getting off work. There’s also time for open discussions among family and friends about the candidates. This explains in part why the percentage of those registered to vote in these states is a third more than in the rest of the country.
In Oregon and other vote-by-mail states, roughly 80 percent of all registered voters participate. Each one receives a ballot in the mail to cover statewide and local elections for which they‘re eligible to vote. Each county tabulates and certifies its votes. For statewide or multi-county elections (like Congress), the counties play that same role and then report their results to the state.
There are secure local lock boxes such as in libraries. Also, ballots may be mailed in. The ballots then go through electronic scanners, but no one, including election officials, has access to any of the daily or overall vote totals until polls close in the evening on Election Day. That’s when vote totals are electronically counted and immediately reported.
If South Carolina should become the South’s pioneer for vote-by-mail, here is how it would work. Several weeks before the election, every registered voter would receive in the mail a ballot for voting. It would cover both their state and local elections. As votes arrive and are counted at the state office, there are almost daily updates of the vote count. The period of voting lasts several weeks.
There would be no need to spend that $50 million if vote-by-mail is implemented.
That money could be used to increase teacher pay by another five percent, attracting more young people to become teachers and attract highly competent teachers from other states, and assist schools districts with highly limited local resources. It would also ensure that in another five or 10 years, there would be no need to spend another $50 million or more to purchase new voting machines.
There’d be hundreds of official ballot collection sites, from which votes are gathered and sent to the state election headquarters. Another option is for voters to mail in their ballots. Voter turnout in vote-by-mail states far exceeds those using voting machines. If every state had matched that turnout in 2016, some 15 million more votes would have been cast nationally. In the end, vote-by-mail would make South Carolina the leader east of the Mississippi River in the full pursuit of democracy.
What would be meaningful would be for State Election Commission Executive Director Marci Andino and board Chairman John Wells to travel to Oregon and spend a couple of days with Oregon’s Secretary of State and staff and perhaps also check in with the staff in neighboring Washington state. Vote-by-mail in South Carolina would not only expand democracy, but over time would save significant amounts of money.
Dr. Jack Bass is professor of humanities and social sciences emeritus at the College of Charleston and author or co-author of eight books related to the American South.