This week, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration issued its report on improving voting in the U.S., and here’s hoping Americans pay attention to it. Our sloppy and archaic voting systems leave us tottering every election on the brink of another Florida-style electoral meltdown like the one we had in 2000. The president’s commission says that it’s finally time to address the systemic defects.
One of its recommendations is earlier voting registration, including allowing people to register online. With proper safeguards, such as requiring that people be already listed in some existing government database through which they can verify their identity, such reforms are laudable. The commission also recommended greater use of technologies that compare registration lists across state lines and that allow purges of ineligible voters. A 2012 Pew Foundation study found, for example, that 2.2 million dead people are still listed as being registered to vote.
As laudable or intriguing as many of the commission’s recommendations are, there are trouble spots in its report. The commission’s most controversial recommendation is to expand early and absentee voting, in large part to reduce the polling-place waiting times to 30 minutes or less, even though an MIT study found that the average waiting time on Election Day in 2012 was only 14 minutes. Convenience-oriented voting is popular, and one-third of the ballots cast in 2012 came in before Election Day. Most of the long lines that people complained about actually formed during early-voting periods, when only a small number of voting sites were open. If those voters had voted on Election Day, they would probably not have had long waits.
But along with the convenience of early voting, there are clear risks and costs. Of the two methods, early voting is preferable because it takes place inside a building where poll workers can observe the process. Absentee voting is much more problematic because the ballots are cast away from the supervision of election officials, and coercion, manipulation, and fabrication can be a part of the process.
While the commission endorses more absentee voting, it also notes the dangers involved. “Fraud is rare, but when it does occur, absentee ballots are often the method of choice,” it concludes. But the report says not one word about state-of-the-art measures that states such as Kansas have adopted to combat absentee fraud — for instance, having the voter include the last few digits of his Social Security number or a copy of a photo ID. It also ignores how hard it would be to integrate election observers into the process as early and absentee voting expand.
In 2001, after the Bush v. Gore meltdown, the National Commission on Federal Election Reform, co-chaired by former presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, issued a comprehensive report on the trend toward all-mail elections and relaxed absentee-ballot laws. It found that “unrestricted absentee voting probably had not increased turnout at all.” Studies since then have shown that early and no-fault absentee voting might actually hurt turnout. The Ford-Carter commission also argued that all-mail elections and no-excuse absentee ballots did not satisfy five essential criteria for honest and fair elections:
1. Assuring the privacy of the secret ballot and protecting against coerced voting;
2. Verifying that only duly registered voters cast ballots;
3. Safeguarding ballots against loss or alteration;
4. Assuring their prompt counting; and
5. Fostering the communal aspect of citizens voting together.
These concerns are real.
We were reminded just this week of problems associated with absentee ballots. Guerrilla videographer James O’Keefe released an undercover video of a meeting of Battleground Texas, a leftist group working to elect Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate for Texas governor. The video shows the Davis supporters ignoring questions about whether forging a signature on a relative’s absentee ballot was legal. “People do that all the time,” said Lisa Wortham, pretending to cover her ears. Wortham is an attorney and a deputy voter registrar working with the group. A volunteer from the group adds her opinion: “I don’t think that’s legal, I’ll do like Lisa did — I didn’t hear you say that.” Other Battleground Texas workers agree but jokingly cover their ears and also pretend not to hear.
The use of secret ballots cast in traditional polling locations can protect voters from being pressured, and it also guards against forged signatures and other kinds of tampering. Absentee ballots are vulnerable to these problems because people cast them in unmonitored settings where family members, employers, churches, union leaders, nursing-home administrators, and others can coerce the voter, which is illegal. The ability of political parties, candidates, and independent groups to appoint observers who can monitor polling sites and the casting of votes helps guarantee the integrity and security of our elections.