Improving our Voting Systems

by John Fund
A presidential report suggests good reforms, but its support for no-excuse absentee ballots is wrong.

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.

No-excuse absentee-ballot laws make it easier to engage in tactics such as requesting absentee ballots in the name of low-income public-housing residents and senior citizens and then either intimidating them or casting votes for them. Fraud even has its apologists. The late Richard Cloward, of the voter-rights group Human Serve, once told CBS News: “It’s better to have a little bit of fraud than to leave people off the rolls who belong there.” But as former Democratic senator Chris Dodd has said, we should be able to “make it easy to vote and hard to cheat.”

Just this month, a vote-fraud scandal has rocked the town of Donna in South Texas. The school-board president, who had won reelection in 2012, committed suicide after accusations were made against three politiqueras, or vote brokers. “A woman who worked as a politiquera in Donna said paying cash or trading drugs for votes had been common in recent elections,” reported the New York Times. The politiqueras sit next to elderly and disabled voters as they mark their absentee ballots in kitchens and living rooms. Often they will leave with the marked ballots, promising to stamp them and mail them for the voter.

Alabama provides another example of how absentee ballots have long been used to skew elections. Back in 1996, the state’s Democratic secretary of state Jim Bennett said, “We don’t use guns, tanks, and bullets to put political leaders in power. We simply allow absentee-ballot manipulation to undermine and quite possibly corrupt the system.” Bennett switched parties the next year in protest against the use of absentee ballots by old-time political bosses to steal elections in the state’s “Black Belt.” When African-American voters who were oppressed by political machines in the Black Belt went to civil-rights groups for help, their pleas were ignored. After all, these new political machines were run by African Americans.

After years of effort, some of the Black Belt bosses were convicted of voter fraud, but fraud continues, according to former Democratic representative Artur Davis, who represented the area until 2011. “I was offered the chance to buy votes in face-to-face meetings,” he says. “I know the practice goes on to this day.” 

The lack of controls on absentee ballots brought Chicago-style vote-buying north to Wisconsin a decade ago. The NBC affiliate in Milwaukee, WTMJ, filmed Democratic campaign workers handing out food and small sums of money to residents at a home for the mentally ill in Kenosha, after which the patients were shepherded into a separate room and given absentee ballots. One of the Democratic operatives fled when she saw the NBC camera crew. A few years before, former Democratic representative Austin Murphy was convicted of engaging in absentee-ballot fraud in a Pennsylvania nursing home, where residents who were barely aware of their surroundings were an easy mark.

In close races, a flood of absentee ballots can delay the results of elections for weeks and lead to fractious recounts. “Any time you have more paper ballots outside the polling place, the greater the chance of mistakes and delays,” New Hampshire secretary of state Bill Gardner, a Democrat, told me. “Getting final election returns appears to be the only area of life today where news travels slower,” says John Carlson, a Seattle talk-show host, who recalls that in 2000 control of the U.S. Senate hinged on counting late absentee votes from a close race in Washington state. The outcome — and who would control the Senate — wasn’t known until December 1. 

Early and absentee voting with responsible controls is fine, but it does increase the cost and difficulty of campaigns. Rather than focus their efforts on a single day, candidates now to have to maintain a full-time and fully funded pre-election operation for weeks before an election. People often tell pollsters that they think campaigns use too much advertising, take too many polls, and spend too much money. A greater amount of early and absentee voting will mean more of all three things. 

Lastly, many analysts, ranging from George Will on the right to Norman Ornstein on the left, have decried the transformation of voting into an act of convenience rather than one of communal pride. Absentee ballots not only dispense with the privacy curtain of the voting booth, but “they consign to private spaces the supreme moment of public choice,” Will notes. “Election Day should be the exhilarating central episode of our civic liturgy.”

If present trends continue, at some point we will become a nation where half of us vote on Election Day and the other half . . . well, whenever. But the notion of an Election Day is embedded in a law passed by Congress in 1872, when it was stipulated that presidential elections should be held on the same day throughout the nation. With extended early voting, the concept of an Election Day — where people vote with roughly the same information and after all the debates have been held — loses most of its meaning. 

— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for National Review Online. He is the co-author, with Hans von Spakovsky, of Who’s Counting: How Fraudsters and Bureaucrats Put Your Vote at Risk.