Election 2004

Early Voting Could Be Perilous

As many as one-fourth of votes may have been cast by today, in a system set up for potential abuse – and November 2 is still 12 days away.
By the time the polls open on Election Day Nov. 2, as many as one-fourth of the votes may already have been cast.

The reason is the steady, and troubling, increase in absentee voting. It's bad enough that millions of voters are not taking part in the fundamental democratic exercise of joining their fellow citizens at the polls. But what's worse, many of the votes that are cast absentee may very well be fraudulent – cast by party operatives or with the hands-on assistance of operatives.

Absentee voting does increase overall voter turnout, as its advocates argue, by enabling people to vote at home, at their own time and pace. These are attractive features, especially for the elderly and disabled. No standing in line to vote, no need to face poor weather, no need to take time out from work. But the dangers posed by the growth of absentee voting far outweigh any possible benefits.

First used during the Civil War to enable Union soldiers to vote for the re-election of President Lincoln, absentee voting originally was limited to voters who were unable to get to the polls on election day and could prove it, usually by signed and witnessed affidavits.

It was that way for a century. But in the 1960s, state officials began changing the rules. They have acted in response to the growing mobility of Americans, pressure from political parties, the rising costs of the machinery and manpower required at the polls and the steady decline in voter turnout.

By now, voters in more than half the states are allowed to cast absentee ballots at will, without the need to give a reason for doing so. One-fourth of the states don't even require that their signatures on the ballot be verified by witnesses.

Most states, in fact, don't check the ballot signatures at all, or the signatures on the applications for ballots.

We should shudder at having millions of citizens voting in as easy, detached, isolated and passive a manner as they do in, say, voting by mail for their auto club's handpicked slate of directors. Do we really want our most vital act of citizenship reduced to that?

Do we want voters to cast their ballots before the final, usually most informative stages of election campaigns? Do we want to delay certification of elections until the lengthy and tedious process of counting absentee votes can be completed?

But the serious threat of fraud should be more than enough to discourage the spread of absentee voting.

It's already common for political parties, candidates and special interests to distribute masses of absentee ballot applications. They convince people to support them and help them mark and sign their ballots, sometimes at campaign rallies or at parties in senior citizen centers, union halls, bars and other neighborhood gathering places.

Some states actually allow political parties to collect and turn in the applications. In seven states, parties can even collect and return the signed ballots.

You can't police absentee voting as you can voting at the polls, where the rule is the secret ballot, that mainstay of democratic elections. Electioneering and any other attempts to sway or intimidate voters are prohibited at the polls.

With absentee voting, the possibilities for the intimidation of voters and other electoral mischief are many. Certainly, forgery is always possible. Even if the signatures on absentee ballots are legitimate, there's no guarantee that someone else didn't do the actual voting or didn't unduly pressure the signers – or perhaps bribe them.

The fears of fraud are not exaggerated. The results of a recent mayoral race in Indiana, for instance, were set aside and the election ordered re-run after it was discovered that some of the absentee votes that had given the incumbent his margin of victory were cast in exchange for poll-watching jobs paying $100 or more for the day's work. Voters in more than a dozen other states where criminal charges have been filed have also admitted getting cash, as well as concert tickets, liquor and other bribes.

"That's how I thought it was, you get paid to vote," one of the absentee voters told the New York Times.

The worst excesses have occurred in Florida. The winner in Miami's 1997 mayoral election was removed from office after a court found that many of the absentee ballots that helped elect him had been forged, coerced, stolen from mailboxes or were otherwise fraudulent. Four years earlier, a judge ordered a new election for mayor of Hialeah because of absentee ballot irregularities. Absentee votes also were part of the controversy over voting in Florida during the last presidential election, with Democrats claiming Republicans had misused them to help secure George Bush's victory.

A few states have moved to keep political operatives from handling ballots or ballot applications. Others once again allow only those with legitimate reasons for being away from the polls to vote absentee.

The number of absentee voters nevertheless will continue to steadily increase nationwide. Democratic and Republican leaders alike will make sure of that, for to them, absentee voting is an easy, irresistible way to generate votes.

Which means that the rest of us must be increasingly alert to the grave dangers it poses for our democratic society.
Dick Meister is a veteran San Francisco journalist.
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