October 21, 2007
Why all the red herrings about no-excuse absentee voting?
The House Committee on Administration held a hearing about no-excuse absentee voting and did not mention Oregon, the state where everyone votes absentee. I find it peculiar that no one with experience with the Oregon system was asked to offer testimony to the committee. There was testimony from Vermont — and speculation from a member of the committee that absentee voting might provide fraud and intimidation.
But no evidence was offered that there fraud and intimidation is more prevalent in mail voting systems than in polling place voting. A Republican member of the committee exhibited typical GOP paranoia about voter ID requirements. The so-called Real ID for voting is a solution in search of a problem. In recent elections the number of cases of voter fraud, in which a person casts a ballot that they are not entitled to cast, can be numbered on the fingers of one hand. However, the risk of disenfranchisement to legitimate voters who do not meet stringent ID requirements is high: the poor, the young, the elderly and victims of disasters like Katrina would all face difficult obstacles to obtaining ID to ensure their right to vote.
I wonder why voter preferences and convenience are not directly addressed at hearings like this. There are reasons why voter participation rates are greater with no-excuse absentee voting is that it really makes it easier for citizens to vote when they don’t have to squeeze it into a work day. The scheduling of elections on Tuesdays is an artifact of a prior age. Until election day is moved to a weekend, voters will continue to vote absentee in ever greater numbers whenever the option is available.
House subcommittee debates expanded absentee vote
Partisan divide over access, security remains strong
On October 16, the House Administration Subcommittee on Elections held a hearing on “Expanding and Improving Opportunities to Vote by Mail or Absentee.” The focus of the hearing was H.R. 281, “The Universal Right to Vote by Mail Act of 2007,” introduced by Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.), which would require all states provide no-excuse absentee voting in federal elections beginning in 2008.
In testimony before the subcommittee, Davis stressed that universal access to absentee voting would increase voter turnout, empower individual voters by allowing them to vote on their own terms, and provide a secure and convenient method of voting for the many Americans who are unable to make it to the polls on election day. “Do Americans that cannot make it to the polls have less of a right to vote than others?” Davis asked the subcommittee members.
The lone Republican at the hearing, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), took issue with Davis’ characterization of the many benefits of absentee voting, focusing instead on what he saw as increased opportunities for fraud.
McCarthy pointed out that despite the best intentions of election and postal officials, absentee voters do not have the many protections from intimidation and vote-buying available to voters at the polling place.
Ruth Y. Goldway, postal regulatory commissioner, testified that an ‘intelligent bar-code’ system currently being developed for bulk mailers could easily be modified for use with absentee ballots. All it would take, she said, was for local officials and the postal service to “work together” to get it done.
Using statistical information from his experiences, Santa Barbara County Clerk Joe Holland testified that the more absentee voters a county has, the higher the overall voter participation is. In Santa Barbara County for instance, absentee voting return rates are 70 percent, while voter turnout at polls on election day averages 52 percent.
Vermont Secretary of State Deb Markowitz (D), a major proponent of the benefits of no-excuse absentee voting to Vermonters, highlighted the esteem in which both voters and election officials hold their system due to its convenience and ease of administration.
In both her written and oral testimony, Markowitz noted the exceptionalism of Vermont, being a “small and rural state with fewer than 450,000 registered voters,” where the majority of ballots are counted by hand and where personal relationships are relied upon as a means of securing the vote.
The only voice of dissent from witnesses came from Jonathan Bechtle, director of the Citizen and Governance Center at the Evergreen Freedom Foundation.
“Every flaw in the voter registration rolls becomes a potential illegal vote under a no-excuse absentee or vote-by-mail system,” Bechtle said in his oral testimony.
Although a date has not yet been set for when the subcommittee may send the legislation to the full committee for review, Chairman Robert Brady has already voiced his support of the legislation.
“I support the Subcommittee’s exploration of no-excuse absentee voting, early voting programs and vote-by-mail systems. These initiatives have been shown to increase voter turnout and participation, specifically in voter demographics that have been previously under-represented, such as women, the elderly and voters in rural areas,” Brady said in a statement. “While these solutions are not without ‘downsides’, they are representative of an important movement towards more response, user-friendly voting systems.”