Absent Without Leave
This year more voters than ever will cast ballots early. The result may be that we get the final election results late. 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.
Thirty states now allow anybody to cast an absentee ballot without having to give an excuse for missing Election Day. That's up from just 20 states six years ago. Several other states also allow early voting at government buildings or even grocery stores. This year, it's expected that over one in four Americans will vote before Election Day.
In states such as Washington, California and Arizona, more than half the ballots are likely to be absentee. In California, more than 1 in 5 voters have signed up to receive absentee ballots for every election. Oregon has gone even further. In 2000 it abolished polling places, and everyone votes by mail.
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 Florida, Pennsylvania and some other states, ballots will come in for days because they are legal if postmarked on or before Election Day. Provisional votes, which are cast when a voter doesn't show up on registration rolls, can also slow down the process. Generally, officials have up to 14 days to determine if a vote is valid. Maryland officials barely met that deadline after snafus with electronic voting machines dramatically increased the number of provisional votes cast in its primary last month.
In some supertight races, a flood of absentee ballots could delay the results for weeks. "Anytime 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.
Mistakes are certainly possible. In 2004, a worker at a Toledo, Ohio, election office found 300 completed absentee ballots in a storage room more than a month after the vote. At least half hadn't been counted, and they affected the result of at least one local contest. 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. "Washington state has regressed in being able to declare a winner since absentee voting now makes up a majority of votes," says John Carlson, a Seattle talk-show host. In 2000, 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 Dec. 1 to learn the U.S. Senate would be tied?" asks Mr. Carlson.
Supporters of absentee voting insist that it increases turnout. But that's simply not the case. Curtis Gans, the director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, says that "academic studies all show that easy absentee voting decreases or has no effect on turnout," with the 2004 election a slight exception. This is because "you are diffusing the mobilizing focus away from a single day and having to mobilize voters over a period of time." Mr. Gans notes that the people who really are helped by absentee voting are those who cast ballots anyway.
It's certainly true that voters like no-excuses absentee voting for its convenience. "Forcing voters to go to the polls to cast their ballots is an antiquated, outdated, absurd practice," says Oren Spiegler, a Pennsylvania voter. But it comes at a price. Simply put, 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 Stone, a former West Virginia election fraud investigator, told the New York Times.
It's so easy to cheat you'd be surprised who's been caught at it. In 1998, former congressman Austin Murphy of Pennsylvania, a Democrat, was convicted of absentee-ballot fraud in a nursing home, where residents' failing mental capacities make them an easy mark. "In this area there's a pattern of nursing home administrators frequently forging ballots under residents' names," Sean Cavanagh, a former Democratic county supervisor from the area, told me. He says that many nursing home owners rely on regular "bounties" from candidates whom they allow to enter their facilities and harvest votes.
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 new book, "Absentee and Early Voting."
The need for safeguards against strong-arm tactics was proved in East Chicago, Ind.'s 2003 mayoral race. Challenger George Pabey defeated Robert Patrick, the eight-term incumbent, among Election Day voters but lost by 278 votes after some 2,000 absentee votes were tabulated.
Investigators for Mr. Pabey turned up repeated instances of coercion and vote-buying. Shelia Pierce allowed a Patrick campaign operative to fill out her absentee ballot in exchange for a $100 job at the polls. She said the operative later threatened her to keep her from testifying. Elisa Delrio said a local official offered her a similar job and even brought her absentee ballot to her hospital bed, where she was recovering from surgery. But after she wound up voting for Mr. Pabey and handed her ballot to the official, it promptly disappeared. The Indiana Supreme Court concluded that it was impossible to know who had won the election and ordered a revote a year later. Mr. Pabey won with 65% of the vote and was sworn in as mayor.
Abuses such as those in East Chicago can occur because many states allow political parties to collect absentee-ballot applications, and several even let them collect the completed ballots. Most states even let campaign workers assist voters in filling out the ballots if they ask for help.
Party operatives "tend to target people who are elderly, infirm, low-income, non-English-speaking," says Jeffrey Garfield, executive director of Connecticut's Election Enforcement Commission. He notes that absentee ballot fraud has been a persistent problem in his state for years and in Hartford alone has resulted in the arrest of at least eight city politicians, including a state representative who pleaded guilty last year to inducing elderly residents of a housing complex to vote for him.
Robert Pastor, director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University and a 2004 Kerry campaign adviser, says laws allowing third-party handling of absentee ballots clearly need to be changed. "They represent an invitation for mischief, which many other countries don't allow," he told me this month following a hearing on election fraud and intimidation conducted by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
The 2001 National Commission on Federal Election Reform, a bipartisan group co-chaired by 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, the director of research for the commission's report.
The commission concluded that absentee ballots do not satisfy five essential criteria for sound and honest elections:
* Assure the privacy of the secret ballot and protection against coerced voting.
* Verify that only duly registered voters cast ballots.
* Safeguard ballots against loss or alteration.
* Assure their prompt counting.
* Foster the communal aspect of citizens voting together.
The AEI's Mr. Fortier 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. States should hire independent investigators to interview a sample of voters about potential coercion or intimidation.
If the present trends continue, we will become a nation where 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 week's elections for weeks. Election Day could become Election Month before we know who will control the 110th Congress.
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