Is Universal Mail-In Balloting Right for Louisiana?

Note: This is an opinion piece only and does not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board. 

Freshman Louisiana State Representative, Mandie Landry (D) New Orleans, has offered HB 419 to level the playing field with an aspect of early voting in Louisiana, mail-in early balloting.  As it stands in Louisiana, any voter who is 65 or older can make a one-time request to have a ballot mailed to them for every race going forward, for the rest of their lives, whether they vote in every election or not.  Is this a good thing?  Well, it is if you’re 65 or older.

Landry’s bill is important to Democrats because they see it as an opportunity to increase participation among marginalized voter groups, who they see as their constituency.  Democrats believe that early voting reduces the cost of voting to marginalized voters by expanding voting opportunities over an extended period of time, while creating a mobilization period (early voting) to get their voters to the polls.  

Republicans have been suspicious of early voting expansions and nefarious “vote hauling” activities that they believe occur during early voting and believe that it is an advantage for Democrats.  The reality is that both Republicans and Democrats are wrong about their highest hopes and deepest fears. In Louisiana, marginalized voters are more likely to vote at local precincts on election day while non-marginalized voters take the most advantage of early voting opportunities.

Mail-in balloting is not a bad thing. As proposed by Landry, it advances the democratic process and it advances political equality and access to a group (younger voters) who are currently being denied an equal opportunity to vote.  These concepts are normative democratic principles that give all registered voters the same opportunities to vote.  But it won’t make a difference.  You see, traditionally marginalized voters, voters who haven’t had a tradition or habit of voting, will a) not take the time to request a ballot, b) not make the effort to complete and mail in the ballot, or c) may not even receive the ballot if they are transient, which many marginalized voters are.  

On the other hand, fastidious non-marginalized voters will take the most advantage of a new form of early voting (mail-in balloting).  They will make sure all who are registered at their addresses vote, including their children who are away at school or those who may have moved away, but have not re-registered to vote. It is also likely that away-from-home voters will mail-in-vote for the same candidates as their non-marginalized fastidious sponsors.

Early voting opportunities, mail-in or otherwise, will not lead to sustained increases in voter turnout.  They have not done so anywhere else and it will not do so in Louisiana.  However, the opportunity to vote must be equal.  No-excuse mail-in balloting must be universally available to all Louisiana voters, regardless of age, or to none at all.

If a representative turnout is the desired outcome of an election law change, perhaps an extended election day is the solution, more precisely, a 2-day election period, where voters have a chance to vote on Saturday and Sunday. While this would increase the cost of election day administration, the cost of early voting administration could be reduced by eliminating in-person early voting and its equipment.  Moreover, the idea of two consecutive days of work for election commissioners may entice more interest in those jobs by a more diverse group of people.

Dr. Tony Licciardi

Expert of U.S. & Louisiana Voting Behavior

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