This year more voters than ever will cast ballots before Election Day. The result may be that in a world where everything seems to move faster we will get final election results later than ever. It's possible we won't know which party controls either house of Congress for days or even weeks because of all the disputes and delays caused by absentee ballots.
More than 30 states now allow anybody to cast an absentee vote. Several other states also allow early voting at government buildings or even grocery stores. This year, it's expected that nearly one in three Americans will vote before Election Day. For people who can't make it to the polls, absentee ballots are necessary.
But for others voting early is like judging the winner of a 15-round boxing match in the 16th round.
If control of Congress hinges on a few close races, don't expect to know the final outcome on Election Night. While early votes cast on electronic machines are easily integrated into the totals from traditional polling places, paper absentee ballots are typically counted only after the others.
In some super-tight races, a flood of absentee ballots could delay the results for weeks. "Any time you have more paper ballots cast outside polling places, the more mistakes and delays you're likely to have," Bill Gardner, New Hampshire's Democratic secretary of state, told me.
In Washington State, absentee ballots were the main reason that two recent statewide contests, for Senate in 2000 and governor in 2004, went into overtime. Democrat Maria Cantwell had to wait weeks to learn she had squeaked out a 2,200-vote plurality at a time when control of the U.S. Senate was in doubt. "Can anyone say it was a good thing the country had to wait until December 1 to learn the U.S. Senate would be tied?" asked John Carlson, a Seattle talk-show host.
Supporters of absentee voting insist that it increases turnout. But that's simply not the case. Curtis Gans, the director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, says that "academic studies all show that easy absentee voting decreases or has no effect on turnout."
Oregon has gone so far as to abolish polling places. Everyone votes by mail. But Melody Rose, political science professor at Portland State University, reports, "Voter turnout in Oregon looks much more like that of states with old-fashioned voting booths."
It's certainly true that voters like no-excuses absentee voting for its convenience. But it comes at a price. Absentee voting makes it easier to commit election fraud, because the ballots are cast outside the supervision of election officials. "By loosening up the restrictions on absentee voting they have opened up more chances for fraud," Damon Slone, a former West Virginia election fraud investigator, told the New York Times.
Absentee voting also corrupts the secret ballot. Because an absentee ballot is "potentially available for anyone to see, the perpetrator of coercion can ensure it is cast ‘properly,' unlike a polling place, where a voter can promise he will vote one way but then go behind the privacy curtain and vote his conscience," notes John Fortier, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, in his book Absentee and Early Voting.
Melissa Rimel, the president and founder of Colorado's Women Against Domestic Violence, recalls how she once was not even allowed to get the mail without her husband first going through it. She says that even if she would have been allowed to fill out a ballot it would have been done under the control of her abusive husband.
THE NEED FOR SAFEGUARDS absentee fraud was underscored this year in Bell, California (pop. 40,000), where officials were forced out of office after it was found they were being paid outrageous salaries and pensions. City manager Robert Rizzo was not only paid $1.5 million, but also due a $600,000-a-year pension.
The scam was aided by having Bell officials take advantage of Bell's low voter turnout to commit ballot fraud. In 2005, fewer than 400 voters cast ballots -- two-thirds of them absentee -- in a special election that cleared the way for city council members to dramatically boost their own salaries.
Four voters told the Los Angeles Times that city officials walked door-to-door urging them to vote absentee. One later was counted as voting absentee even though she said she never filled out a ballot. Two other voters said local council members had personally collected their ballots for delivery, a violation of state law. In addition, a retired Bell police officer has identified at least 19 people he says voted but were either dead or living outside the country. He has provided a statement to Los Angeles prosecutors, who have opened an investigation.
The 2001 National Commission on Federal Election Reform, a bipartisan group co-chaired by the late Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, found that local election officials have grown sloppy in handling absentee ballots. "Most states do not routinely check signatures either on applications or on returned ballots, just as most states do not verify signatures or require proof of identity at the polls," noted John Mark Hansen, director of research for the commission's report.
John Fortier of AEI has some suggestions on how to retain the convenience of pre-Election Day voting but with a lower risk of fraud and intimidation. He suggests that states expand hours at polling places for early voting, but only during the 10 days before the election. New computer software can be used to match signatures on absentee ballots with registration records and flag those that raise concerns. States could require that every voter enclose a fingerprint or photocopy of some form of identification, not necessarily a photo ID.
If present trends continue, we will become a nation in which half of us vote on Election Day and the other half...well, whenever. While that may not bother some people, it won't be good for democracy if a flood of absentee ballots means the country will have to endure a slew of lawsuits and recounts that could delay the final results of next month's elections for weeks. Election Day could become Election Month before we know who will control the new Congress.