Our inbox is flooded over this post on absentee voting. A reader writes:
During the 2008 election I spoke with my County Clerk at length about Oregon's unique system. He was a Republican and had once been vehemently opposed to the idea of absentee voting. But after practicing it for a decade, he couldn't stop gushing about how much more smooth and efficient it runs now. Most of the dangers outlined by Tim Lee were also bandied about in Oregon when debating the transition to mail-in ballots, and to the best of my knowledge none of them have actually happened.
I moved to Oregon in 2006 and absolutely love absentee voting. I don't have to worry about making it to a polling place on a busy Tuesday workday. Instead, I have up to a month to make my decision and stick it in the mail at my leisure. This affords me the opportunity to ignore all the last-minute fevered antics by politicos in the last five days as they try to win the very last news cycle and embarrass their opponent with some cutting revelation. Instead of making a "collective decision at the same time on the same day," as you write, I think giving voters the opportunity to make up their own minds at their own pace is a brilliant way to practice democracy.
I just don't get your concerns about everyone voting at once. Election day is already an arbitrary cut off at which point no future events can be taken into account by the voters. What's wrong with having that occur over a month? And how is the harm you foresee not worth getting an additional 10 or 20 percent of the population voting?
As an Oregon activist who has spent several campaign seasons knocking on local doors and serving in phone banks AFTER the ballots have been mailed, I just want to say your quoted writer's fears on "poor neighborhoods" and abused wives are very much overblown.
Each mailed ballot in the state contains numerous legal notices that it's a felony to try and coerce or purchase someone else's vote; voters also must sign that that marked the ballot themselves. Two of the scenarios Lee outlines - the boss holding mandatory "voting parties", or the political operative purchasing ballots door-to-door - would likely bring about the heavy hand of law enforcement very swiftly. This sort of large-scale vote fraud would not go unnoticed very long (were someone to show up at MY door offering to buy my ballot, I'd be on the phone to the cops in a heartbeat). A dominant and abusive household member forcing others to vote his way is probably the most plausible scenario, but I suspect that this occurs even with traditional voting (e.g. few battered spouses are likely to have the wherewithal to lie to their abuser about how they cast their ballots).
As a result of my professional career, I have lived in an voted in several states, including a decade in Manhattan and nearly 15 years in Portland, Oregon, where I always voted by mail. I'm not prepared to say that vote by mail is nirvana for voting problems but it does have several aspects that make it a reasonable option.
1) It is impervious to inclement weather which can be a significant factor in suppressing voter turn out.
2) If your state has ballot initiatives/referendums it makes it easier to cast an informed ballot. Sitting in your home, and with no time pressure using your voters pamphlet, you can work your way through the ballot.
3) You vote at your convenience rather than trying to fit voting in to an otherwise very busy day or contend with unexpected illness, child care or travel issues.
4) It makes it more difficult for candidates to "game" the calendar. Early voting has the same effect. It negates last minute dirty tricks.
The classic example of a structural barrier to voting is, of course, the soldier serving overseas. Naturally, we cannot expect soldiers, sailors and marines to drive to their local polling place and vote when they are required to be thousands of miles away. So, there are absentee ballots for them. But what about the college student who, as I did, attends college outside his or her home state? Or the disabled person who cannot physically go to the polling place? Or someone who travels for work? In those and in many other instances, otherwise interested voters do not vote because there are too many hoops to jump through. As the South demonstrated during Jim Crow, bureaucratic red tape is a great way to prevent voting. And the people who get caught up in red tape are most likely voters under 30, minorities, and business professionals.
Sure, Oregon's system has its problems, but voting in person doesn't? The logistics of having to get to a polling place, wait in line, possibly face intimidation/harassment, deal with inclement weather, and balance work and family commitments all on one specific day ... I cannot think of a good reason to prefer that to filling something out at your convenience over the course of several weeks. Oregon consistently ranks near the top of the nation in voter turnout. The best numbers I could find after a quick google search put us 6th in the 2002 election.
What I cannot understand is why we don't have internet voting yet. Oh sure, there are all sorts of security issues. But if I can file my taxes and get a credit report online by answering a few simple questions, why can't I log onto vote.gov or something, enter in my SSN, address, mother's maiden name, and cast my ballot from wherever I happen to be at that time? It'd probably be safer and more reliable than the Diebold machines that are easily defrauded and don't even give you a receipt.
Or, in the case of Homer, they eat you alive.