OPINION - Guest column

Arkansas needs a vote-by-mail system

Every election year, Arkansas voters are faced with a laundry list of problems when trying to cast a ballot. Broken voting equipment, inaccessible polling locations and inadequately trained and overworked poll workers are persistent problems.

Voting system failures cost Arkansas taxpayers money, and more importantly, they often cost them their ability to vote.

It's time for Arkansas to update our election process with a system that saves millions of dollars, makes it easier to vote, and is more secure from fraud or hacking. We should move to a vote-by-mail system.

A statewide vote-by-mail system could be easily implemented by expanding existing absentee voting laws so that all registered voters receive their ballots by mail. It's not new to Arkansas. Individuals whose circumstances make it impossible to vote in person have been doing it for years. It's the only way our soldiers and military service personnel can vote while deployed.

The reasons for this change are compelling. It's fair, safe, inexpensive and easy.

• Modern poll-based elections are expensive and labor intensive. Voting machines must be procured, tested, maintained, secured and stored in climate-controlled facilities. Poll workers must be recruited--an increasingly challenging assignment--trained and supported, and appropriate polling sites must be identified, secured and managed. In some areas of the state, these pressures are leading to a reduction in the number of polling places.

• Vote-by-mail would save Arkansas taxpayers millions of dollars in equipment and labor costs.

• Because votes are cast on paper and vote-counting machines are not connected to the Internet, the risk of cyber hacking is eliminated. Decentralized ballot distribution and the ability of election officials to check affidavit signatures against those on the voters' registration records should a question arise serve as an additional protection against fraud.

Moreover, with Arkansas' voter ID law, voters must return their mailed ballots with a copy of a government-issued photo ID. If the signature does not match the one on file and if the photo ID is not correct, the ballot is not counted.

• Finally, and critically important, vote-by-mail creates a paper trail in the event the election is contested.

Oregon, Washington and Colorado are vote-by-mail states, and election officials there have demonstrated that attempts at voter fraud are essentially nonexistent and occur at no higher frequency than in poll-based voting.

Regrettably, time-honored election processes can serve as barriers to voter participation. We know that work hours, disabilities, age, long waiting lines, inclement weather, and long distances to the polls, particularly in rural areas of the state, reduce voter turnout. And yet we accept them. Even the process of applying for an absentee ballot can act as a deterrent. Vote-by-mail breaks down these barriers and opens up the process to every eligible voter in the state.

When the feasibility of vote-by-mail was tested in Garden County, Neb., in its May 15, 2018, primary election, 59 percent of registered voters participated. Participation in other Nebraska counties in the same election averaged 24 percent.

A 2017 study of vote-by-mail in Colorado identified a notable increase in voter participation among young people and low-propensity voters. In 2016, 2 million Oregonians--80 percent of the state's registered voters--cast their votes by mail. That same year, Arkansas voter turnout was 54 percent. When voting is easy and safe, more Americans vote.

It is not uncommon for voters to be knowledgeable about the qualifications of one candidate but not another. Otherwise well-informed citizens find themselves reading complex constitutional amendments or initiated acts for the first time in the polling booth. Vote-by-mail allows voters to access needed information if discovering an unfamiliar candidate or issue on their ballot. Washington even includes pamphlets in its voter packets in which candidates write summaries of their positions on critical issues and proponents and opponents of ballot initiatives or referenda make their case to voters.

For all of these reasons, it's not surprising that 22 states across the country have been adopting some form of vote-by-mail since it was first initiated in Oregon in 1998. California, the most populous state in the nation, will have fully implemented a universal vote-by-mail system by 2020.

We can all agree that free, fair and credible elections are the bedrock of our democracy. Unfortunately, though the world has changed dramatically, our electoral processes have not. We must take all necessary measures to ensure that our elections are safe from cyber intrusion, respectful of taxpayer dollars, and easily accessible and inclusive for all eligible voters, and we must do it now.

Susan Inman is the Democratic nominee for Arkansas Secretary of State. She served as Pulaski County Election Director and as Director of Elections for former Secretary of State Sharon Priest. A former county and state election commissioner, she has monitored over a dozen international elections as an appointee of the United States Department of State and is the author of A How-to Handbook for County Election Commissioners.

Editorial on 09/16/2018