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Voting from My Couch: How Voting by Mail Can Lower Barriers to Voting

Election Day was still a week away when I cast my vote earlier this week – from my couch.

Colorado has an exclusive vote-by-mail system (along with Oregon and Washington. California will roll out voting by mail in 2018) so every registered voter gets a ballot in the mail at least two weeks before an election. We can return our ballots at a number of drop-off locations in cities and towns or put them in the mail.

Dropping off my ballot earlier this week.

Research on voting by mail (albeit limited) indicates it can help increase turnout by making voting easier and more accessible. A study by Phil Keisling, the Director of the Center for Public Service at Portland State University, found that the three states with universal vote by mail had higher turnout in 2014, even without competitive races, than battleground states with hotly contested senatorial or gubernatorial races. In particular, Keisling said turnout among young voters in those three states was double youth voter turnout in other states. In Oregon in 2014, 45.6 percent of registered 18 to 34-year-olds voted (even without an exciting race to weigh in on), compared to rates around 20 percent in battleground states like North Carolina and Pennsylvania. The study found higher turnout among seniors, too.

Voting from home also reduces the chance for confusion at the polls. How many times have you gone to the polls only to see a race listed that you hadn’t thought about or a ballot question you struggled to understand? Getting my actual ballot in the mail ahead of time prompted me to start doing some research – I chatted with my neighbors, noticed yard signs and read leaflets. When I voted at home this week, I had my computer next to me so I could look up any final questions about the issues and the candidates. I marked my decisions directly on my ballot instead of scribbling them on a sticky note to take to the polls.

Having several weeks to complete a ballot means voters have more opportunities to vote outside of the formal Election Day. If someone is going out of town or will have a busy week at work, they can plan accordingly, without the hassle of getting an absentee ballot.

The current realities of in-person voting can, unfortunately, deter many people from casting their vote. In March 2016, Phoenix had one polling place for every 108,000 residents, meaning voters spent hours waiting in line. In Texas in October 2016, even voters trying to vote early to avoid Election Day rushes were met with several-hour long lines. For single parents or people working multiple jobs, for instance, that may make voting in-person infeasible.

Allowing residents to vote by mail, along with a host of other good practices, helps increase voter turnout and improve democracy. Sure, I miss the “I Voted” sticker and the excitement of a polling place, but I feel fortunate to live in a state where I can vote in sweatpants from home and drop off my ballot on my way to work.