Maryland’s absentee voting technology for the June 24 statewide primary assumes U.S. Post Office skills and resources that the newest generation of young voters not only lack but are not anxious to acquire.
My son, a rising sophomore in college who is attending an intensive foreign language summer program out-of-state, recently called home with a most surprising problem. Excited that at age 19 he is finally able to vote, he had diligently registered to vote with the Maryland Board of Elections for the June 24 primary and later sent in a request for an absentee ballot. Because his request was sent in early, he had the option to choose between a physical or electronic absentee ballot. He chose the electronic one. My son doesn’t use the mail and didn’t think of himself as having a post office address.
The Problem of U.S. Post Office Literacy
After receiving his absentee ballot via email, my son had planned to cast his vote close to the June 24 election since there was still a lot of campaigning going on and he wanted to familiarize himself with the candidates first. However, on June 18 he received an email from the Maryland Board of Elections noting that he still hadn’t voted and instructing him that because the deadline for ordering a print ballot mailed to him had just passed, he would need to access the ballot online, print it, vote, find an envelope, address the envelope, apply postage to the envelope, and then take the absentee ballot in the envelope to a post office or drop box.
Sounds simple enough, right? Well, it turns out my son, like many people his age, had rarely mailed an envelope before — a skill most people of older generations mastered in the third grade. He not only wasn’t entirely sure about how to address an envelope; he certainly didn’t have either an envelope or a stamp on hand in the one bedroom apartment he’s subletting for the month. He also didn’t have a printer to print the ballot, since he generally walks a few blocks to the library to print out papers. It is possible he’ll learn between now and Election Day how to use the United States Postal Service. But he has three major tests next week, so he just may not bother.
Even if my son had requested a physical ballot in a timely way, to cast his vote he still would have had to have basic postal service skills and resources, including the ability to go to a post office and purchase a stamp. And — because Maryland doesn’t mail out physical absentee ballot request forms — merely to have requested the physical ballot, he would have either have had to print and mail the ballot request form (requiring the whole process of printing the form, signing it, acquiring an envelope, addressing it, etc.) or print the ballot request form, sign it, scan it into his computer, and email it back (which would probably have been more to his liking but is still a cumbersome process).
One problem my son didn’t have was signing his name. But I’m told that as schools no longer teach cursive writing and students increasingly sign their name electronically (e.g., for text messaging, email, and electronic bill pay), traditional paper and pen signature literacy is also in decline.
Now this is a technologically sophisticated and (we thought) reasonably intelligent and motivated young man. He sends thousands of text messages a month and has been using email regularly since grade school. He spends hours a day using his iPhone, iPad and MacBook Air, and I’d classify him as an expert user of some very sophisticated software programs. But mailing an envelope? He thinks that is a skill with as much use to him as reading cursive handwriting, paper maps, and analog clocks — all things, again, which people used to master long before reaching voting age.
I imagine that we old folks aren’t very sympathetic to someone who hasn’t learned a skill we consider absolutely fundamental to adult living. But you could also argue that requiring post office literacy represents a new form of vote suppression.
Is this really a type of systematic discrimination against a certain class of voters? Perhaps it doesn’t yet deserve the designation of voter suppression. But I suspect that there are many college students similar to my son and that their number is growing all the time. Assuming that young people know how to use the U.S. Post Office for mailing a letter may one day be viewed the way literacy tests for voting came to be viewed in the mid-20th century.
If the U.S. Post Office continues to cut back days, hours, and locations of operation (recall the evisceration of U.S. Post Office drop boxes during the past decade) because of declining use and revenue combined with increasing labor costs, the argument against relying on the U.S. Post Office for voting will become even more credible. Here the argument would be not so much Post Office literacy as Post Office convenience. And the danger might be that absentee voting requirements could be used as yet one more hidden subsidy — at the expense of democratic accountability — to keep the U.S. Post Office solvent.
It seems to me that Maryland should do one of two things: mail both requests for absentee ballot and absentee ballots that include a pre-addressed, pre-stamped return envelope, or complete the transition to electronic voting. Since the latter seems politically impossible in Maryland for the foreseeable future, the former would appear to be the only feasible method to alleviate this emerging form of college student vote suppression. Alternatively, those who want to encourage college students to vote might want to set up shop on campuses and hand out envelopes and stamps the way they already escort certain disabled groups of voters to the polls. But clearly, the only long-term solution is to transition to true e-voting, just at the little country of Estonia (population 1.3 million, less than a fourth of Maryland’s) has done successfully and the U.S. military is well on its way to doing for its overseas soldiers.
The Maryland State Board of Elections is no paragon of democratic accountability. For example, it treats the software manual for its vote tallying software (bought from a company that doesn’t want competitors to get access to its intellectual property) as proprietary information that it won’t give out to the public even in response to a Maryland Public Information Act request. The Board of Elections also lacks a public record of both its vote tallying software program’s inputs and outputs, the latter of which is used to declare election results. Citizens are simply expected to take the software’s inputs and outputs on faith. While this may not be a problem for most elections, it is a serious problem for certain types of elections with unusual majority denominators, especially when those denominators are calculated based on complicated assumptions not contained in election law. (For background, see my articles on Maryland’s ambiguous majority denominator for convening a state constitutional convention, Maryland manipulates ‘majority’ vote, and the cover-up of this problem by Maryland Board of Elections, Shame On Maryland’s State Board Of Elections.)
Whereas in hiding its backroom software operations from the public, the Maryland Board of Elections appears to be primarily seeking to escape potential controversy and thus democratic accountability, here the problem appears to be of a different nature.
The problem is partly a misplaced desire for cost savings combined with obtuseness about the needs of its customers; in this case, the most recent generation of young voters who are growing up in a very different technological environment than their parents.
But the more fundamental problem is that state governments often seem unable to implement the type of technological and institutional innovation needed to meet the changing needs of their citizens. More of Silicon Valley’s spirit of innovation needs to come to voting. Maryland’s reputation as a technology challenged state government — witness its recent healthcare exchange fiasco — means that hope will probably have to be placed elsewhere. Estonia, which outclasses Maryland IT not just in voting IT but in healthcare IT and many other forms of government IT, might be a good place to look.
1) Snider, J.H., Is anything less than true e-voting adequate for today’s post office challenged youth?, Anne Arundel Patch, June 22, 2014.
3) Snider, J.H., Is anything less than true e-voting adequate for today’s post office challenged youth?, Watchdog Wire, June 22, 2014.