Prepaid ballot envelopes a waste
Tuesday, April 30, 2019
Like many people, when I first heard N.C. Elections Board Executive Director Kim Strach’s proposal to address absentee ballot fraud by having pre-paid postage for absentee ballots, I thought it was a great idea. However, later study revealed that it would be a waste of taxpayer money that would not do what its proponents claim.
That has not stopped the sponsors of H743, James D. Gailliard, D-Nash, and Verla Insko, D-Orange, from pushing forward with the idea.
The idea behind the prepaid ballot envelope proposal is that there are many voters who would mail in their ballots except that they either cannot afford postage or are unable to get it. Those citizens would be vulnerable to ballot harvesters who offer to deliver their ballots for them.
Does that premise hold up to scrutiny? If a lack of stamps was preventing people from voting, it is reasonable to expect that making it free to mail in ballots would significantly increase turnout among those with mail-in ballots. The state of Washington experimented with prepaid postage for ballots in most of its counties in 2018 and discovered that it had no net impact on voter turnout:
"Early results show that it didn’t seem to matter much. Early tests indicated that some local, special elections did benefit from pre-paid postage. Statewide though, voter participation increases in some counties were matched by decreases in others. And the numbers showed that that the central driving force remains the same as it ever was: which elections are in play."
While making ballot envelopes postage paid failed to get more people to vote, it did accomplish one thing: sticking Washington taxpayers with a $1.2 million bill. Washington is a vote-by-mail state, so North Carolina would waste less money, but it would still be money wasted.
Nor is Washington’s experience unique. A 2010 experiment in San Mateo County, California found that making ballot envelopes postage paid had no overall impact on turnout and actually decreased the rate of voting by mail.
The proposal also fails to address the real danger with mail-in absentee ballots: active ballot harvesting by political operatives working or volunteering for campaigns or political parties. Since making ballot envelopes postage paid would not cause voters to suddenly start getting their ballots in, those voters will still be vulnerable to such political operatives obtaining their ballots. There are several ways to directly address ballot harvesting:
■ Make it illegal for political operatives to mark the ballots of nursing home patients or "assist" them in marking ballots
■ Make absentee ballot requests secret until after the voter has submitted his or her ballot
■ Make it illegal for a paid or volunteer political worker to witness a ballot
■ Place a cap on the number of ballots that most individuals can witness
■ Encourage voters to vote one-stop or on election day
■ Ban political operatives from submitting absentee ballot requests.
H743 does none of those. Instead, the bill allows its proponents to make a show of being concerned with absentee ballot fraud without doing anything to actually address absentee ballot fraud.
Prepaid postage for absentee ballot envelopes is a microcosm of what is wrong with many government programs; it is an exercise in virtue signaling but doesn’t do what it purports to do, fails to address the real problem, and sticks taxpayers for the cost.
Not such a great idea after all.
Andy Jackson is the elections policy fellow at the Civitas Institute in Raleigh.