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The Dangers of Absentee Voting
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By the time the polls open on Election Day November 7, more than 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 at their own pace, a particularly attractive feature for the elderly and disabled. But compelling as some of those arguments may seem, 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 people 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, the state officials who are in charge of such matters began changing the rules.

By now, voters in more than half the states are being allowed to cast absentee ballots at will. Some of the states don't even check the signatures on the ballots or those on 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, often most informative stages of election campaigns? Before last-minute developments that might change their minds? Do we want to delay certification of elections until the lengthy and tedious process of counting absentee votes can be completed?

Do we really want campaigns to begin so much earlier and last so much longer than they once did in order to court the growing number of early-voting absentees?

The serious threat of fraud should be more than enough, at any rate, 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 to people that they convince to support them and to help them mark and sign their ballots, sometimes at campaign rallies or other social gatherings.

Some states actually allow political parties to collect and turn in the applications or even collect and return the signed ballots.

You can't police absentee voting, as you can police 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 at polling places are prohibited, of course, and no one need know how they voted.

With absentee voting, the possibilities for the intimidation of voters and other electoral mischief are many. Certainly forgery is always possible. And 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 at least unduly pressure the signers -- or perhaps bribe them.

The fears of fraud are not exaggerated. Absentee voters in more than a dozen states where criminal charges have been filed have admitted getting cash, well-paid poll-watching assignments, concert tickets, liquor and other considerations in exchange for their votes.

"That's how I thought it was, you get paid to vote," one of them told a New York Times reporter.

The worst excesses have occurred in Florida. The winner in Miami's 1997 mayoral election, for instance, 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.

A few states have moved to keep political operatives from handling ballots or ballot applications, some others to once again allow only those with legitimate reasons for being away from the polls to vote absentee. But the number of absentee voters

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

Which means that the rest of us must be increasingly alert to the dangers it poses for our democratic society.

Copyright (c) 2006 Dick Meister