WASHINGTON -- It looks as if some 30 percent of all voters will cast absentee or early votes this coming election, a sixfold increase from just two decades ago. The number could go even higher this year if fears about electronic touch-screen machines lead many people to conclude that the only to create a paper record of their vote is to cast an absentee ballot.
State and local election boards are making it easier than ever to skip out on Election Day voting. In 16 of the 20 battleground states this November a voter will no longer need to provide an excuse for not being able to show up physically at the polls. While absentee voting is certainly popular with time-stressed voters, it also substantially increases the potential for fraud. "The lack of in-person, at-the-polls accountability makes absentee ballots the tool of choice for those inclined to commit fraud," the Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded in 1998, after all 5,200 absentee ballots cast in a Miami mayoral election were thrown out after it was learned that "vote brokers" had illegally forged hundreds of phony absentee ballots.
That's why it's worrisome that many Democrats are openly exploiting exaggerated fears of electronic voting machines "eating" votes and urging people to vote absentee. Several liberal independent groups such as Americans Coming Together and MoveOn.org are openly pushing for voters to get their ballots "in the bank" by voting early. "It is the only way to create a paper record of your ballot," says Rep. Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat who urges every audience he addresses to cast an absentee ballot this year.
Small wonder, then, that Florida, along with other states, is seeing an explosion in absentee balloting. With a month to go before the August 31 primary, Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Theresa LePore had received nearly three times the number of requests her office had gotten at the equivalent time two years ago. In 2000, she printed up 50,000 absentee ballot request forms and "had tons left over." This year she had to reprint the form after the 75,000 forms she ordered were gobbled up.
Some Republicans are joining the bandwagon promoting absentee voting. "The liberal Democrats have already begun their attacks and the new electronic voting machines do not have a paper ballot to verify your vote in case of a recount," says a glossy mailer, paid for by the Republican Party of Florida. "Make sure your vote counts. Order your absentee ballot today."
DESPITE ITS POPULARITY, absentee voting is a public policy failure in achieving its goal of boosting overall voter turnout among busy people. Despite featuring a presidential race that was tied in the polls, the 2000 election saw only 50.7 percent of eligible voters show up, a fraction more than the 49.1 percent who voted in the ho-hum 1996 race. Turnout increased by 1.5 percent in states with liberal absentee voting and by 2.6 percent in states without it.
Curtis Gans, the director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, says that all the studies "are unequivocal in showing that easy absentee voting decreases voter turnout." This is because "you are diffusing the mobilizing focus away from a single day and having to mobilize voters over a period of time." Gans notes that the people who are really helped by absentee voting are those who would cast ballots anyway, often "lazy middle class and upper-middle class people."
It should also be cause for concern that absentee voting allows voters to cast ballots before they might receive useful information, or telling insights into candidates. Ross Perot suffered his meltdown on 60 Minutes, which saw him accuse Republicans of disrupting his daughter's wedding, only nine days before Election Day in 1992. That same year, Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh indicted Caspar Weinberger and other figures in the Iran-Contra scandal only four days before Election Day. The John Huang campaign fundraising scandal accelerated in the days just prior to the 1996 election. Author Elizabeth Drew quotes Bill Clinton as admitting the Huang scandal prevented the Democrats from regaining control of the House.
As noted earlier, absentee voting is also fraud-prone. In 1998, former Democratic Congressman Austin Murphy of Pennsylvania was convicted of absentee ballot fraud. "In this area there's a pattern of nursing-home administrators frequently forging ballots under residents' names," says Sean Cavanagh, a Democratic county supervisor who uncovered the scandal and was so disowned by his party that he turned independent. CBS's 60 Minutes created a stir when it found people in California using mail-in forms to register fictitious people, or pets, and then obtaining absentee ballots in their names.
"I'm very anti-absentee ballot because of fraud and coercion," says Ted Selker, a computer science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-director of the CalTech/MIT Voting Technology Project. He also notes that the optical scanners used to read most absentee ballots have as many if not more problems with security as do electronic machines.
Numerous analysts, from George Will on the right to Norman Ornstein on the left, have also decried the transformation of voting into an act of convenience rather than communal pride. Absentee ballots not only dispense with the privacy curtain of the voting booth, but, as Will notes, "consign to private spaces the supreme moment of public choice. Election Day should be the exhilarating central episode of our civic liturgy."
While it's too late to do anything other than try to monitor and limit fraud this election, it's past time for the states to reconsider if it's a good idea to allow all voters the easy rush to judgment that absentee voting permits. They should rein in absentee and early voting. For if the present trends continue, they will increase the likelihood of more disputed election outcomes à la Florida in 2000. We need to avoid becoming a nation where half of us vote on Election Day and the other half -- well, whenever.
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