It’s election eve for the American half of Humans in Design, but I’ve already voted. In my new Pacific Northwest home, the default method for voting is a mail-in ballot. People are casting their votes from home rather than a polling place. I mailed my ballot two weeks ago, and it was amazingly satisfying. It made me think this change of voting context was important.
Voting from home changed the election for me. My first presidential election was in 2004, and I was voting in Utah. It was no butterfly ballot, but pushing a stylus through paper still felt incredibly antiquated. And it didn’t help that everything I voted for that year lost, either. 2008 was better - electronic voting machines had arrived, and my polling place had changed from my old elementary school to a government building near my downtown Salt Lake City apartment. My candidates still didn’t win locally, but no one can deny that the election was thrilling.
But aside from those major candidate disappointments and victories, all those minor ballot initiatives and less-prominent candidates felt like a test I hadn’t studied for. Instead I chose to vote directly along party lines, or for whichever candidate had the most foreign-sounding name. I took about 5 to 10 minutes to fill out this ballot.
This year’s ballot felt more like an open book test. There was no line behind me, and I took the time to carefully consider each question that I didn’t already have a strong opinion about. And it helped that this time I was voting for great things (gay marriage! sensible drug laws! second terms!). I sat there with google chrome tabs open on each of the issues I felt I needed more information on, learning about them as I cast my vote. I took 45 minutes to fill it out. That’s around 5 to 10 time longer than I spent in the last two elections.
I don’t expect everyone out there to be like me but it absolutely made me a more informed voter. I feel it’s undeniable that this change of context - voting in your own time with access to all sorts of information - is important and, in my opinion, better.
The ballot wasn’t completely perfect, either — the long sheet of paper was a little unruly, and I had to go out and buy a book of stamps to mail it back. There’s also an option to drop off ballots at designated locations, but for a process that is otherwise almost completely painless this seemed like just-enough of a participation barrier to stop some people from returning their envelopes.
Efforts by political groups to collect ballots and deliver them on behalf of voters have rightly been met with derision, and I really think that simply buying and giving out free stamps would be a better way to ensure a large turnout.
Also, the ballots are verified by signature, and the system isn’t fool proof. A friend of mine (who has been casting absentee ballots for years) told me a story of having to re-send his signature after the election commission determined that his original ballot wasn’t a close enough match.
On the whole I think mail-in ballots are one of the best options for American elections. They drive down the costs of participation for voters. No one has to wait in line or take time off from work. And there are at least some voters who, like me, will consider the issues in more detail during voting.
Part of me is disappointed that I won’t get an “I Voted” sticker from the polling place. Also, my election buzz is slightly deflated, but not enough to think that this was anything less than the best ballot I have cast in my time as a voter.