Voting by Mail

ALMOST all the evils of our political system, almost all the abuses of municipal, state, and national government, are traceable to the neglect of civic duties by those whom — paradoxically, if this assertion be true — we term good citizens. The bad citizens are ever on the alert to storm the citadel, or to fortify, intrench, and defend themselves when in possession. They have no scruples which forbid their use of stratagem and fraud to gain or to retain power. Those who hold to the maxim that the only object of government is good government must properly deny themselves the use of such means to dislodge the bosses, and such as enter politics merely to obtain a livelihood at the public expense. It is permissible to them to win victories by the sheer force of numbers only. Inasmuch as their numerical superiority is not overwhelming in any of our large cities, and is extremely small in some of them, it follows that constant vigilance is required of them ; and since they are aroused to the full performance of their duty only occasionally and spasmodically, it also follows that many of our city and some of our state governments are usually in the possession of politicians whose aims are chiefly selfish.

So far all men are agreed save those who have brought themselves to believe that the prime object of political endeavor is to carry the next election. It is not difficult to go a step further without meeting with a disagreement of opinion on the part of any who accept the statement that our governments might almost always be good governments, if those whom we call good citizens were as active as their opponents are. The reason why they are not equally vigilant is that our political system requires too much of the individual citizen. In other countries, almost without exception, the duty of the elector is completed when he has deposited his ballot in favor of one or more representatives in the national parliament or the municipal assembly, who are in each case chosen for a term of years. The infrequency of the recurrence of the duty not only makes easier performance by the citizen, but adds to the dignity and solemnity of his exercise of the right of suffrage. The opposite effect is produced by our system. Caucuses, conventions, and elections follow one another at intervals so brief that the citizen is wearied by them. So often is he called upon to guard the approaches to the government that he needs to be reminded of his duty on each occasion ; and familiarity breeds contempt.

Now, it is impossible to change the system. Doubtless we shall continue to elect by popular vote governors, mayors, judges, coroners, and other officers, as well as state, county, and municipal representatives. An attempt is made to diminish the excessive calls upon the citizen’s time and attention, by fixing upon the same day for the election of the officers of two or more of our various governments. This remedy introduces two evils of its own. It so multiplies the number of candidates whose qualifications are to be considered as to puzzle and baffle the citizen who desires to do his full duty; and it augments vastly the opportunities for trading and “ logrolling ” which give the enemies of good government greater chances of success. These evils are to grow rather than to disappear as the population increases and as the political system becomes, as it surely will become, more complex.

Nevertheless it is obvious that the way to improvement of the existing system lies in the direction of rendering easier the performance of duty by the individual elector, rather than in that of lessening the duty itself. It is the purpose of this article to suggest a change in the machinery of elections which would accomplish the desired result; and to give reasons why the probability of introducing new evils is by no means so great as it appears at first thought. The suggestion is that the requirement of the personal presence of the voter at the polls be abandoned, and that for the existing system there be substituted one of voting by mail or by personal deposit of the ballot, at the option of the elector.

It will be admitted without argument that the compulsory presence of the voter at the polls works many hardships and is productive of injustice. There is no logical reason why a man who has the misfortune to break his leg, or to contract an illness that confines him to his house, should therefore lose his right to vote. Nor is there good cause for denying the suffrage to one whose business imperatively calls him away from home on the day of election. It is not necessary to cite other similar cases, of which there are many on the occasion of every election, where voters are deprived of their privilege by a rule that every one will admit should be abolished unless it is necessary to preserve the purity of elections. Attention may be called to the fact that, so far as the deprivation is a result of business preoccupation and not of physical disability, the rule takes away the rights of those who are presumably the persons best fitted to enjoy it.

The requirement of actual presence at the polls, by reason of the inconvenience it occasions, is the chief explanation of the neglect of their political duties by many citizens ; and this, which is the strongest argument for its abolition, demands hardly more than the bare statement. It is, indeed, a fact within the knowledge of every observer of the working of our political system. It is easy for a man to excuse himself from attending a caucus if the alternative is to lose an evening he wishes for himself, or from taking an hour or more of a business day to cast his ballot at a minor election. If he were permitted to prepare his ballot at home or at his office and send it to the voting place a day or two days — at his pleasure — before the time of election ; if he were further permitted, in case he had forgotten or for any other reason had failed to mail his vote, to go to the polls and cast it in person, no excuse would be left him for a neglect of his duties.

The following scheme of a system to introduce the reformed method of voting has twice been presented by the writer to the Massachusetts General Court. It has not had the benefit of advocacy by trained speakers; no one has ever been asked to argue in favor of it. That it has not commended itself to the legislative intelligence of the Commonwealth is frankly admitted ; but its failure so to do did not arise from unanswerable objections, nor did it in either case ensue upon a thorough consideration of the scheme.

It is proposed that, as now, all elections be by “ Australian ” ballot; that prior to any election the ballot shall be printed a sufficient time, say one week, before the time when the votes are to be counted, to allow the operation of the system ; that one ballot, and one only, be distributed by mail or by an officer to each registered voter ; that any voter may mark and sign his ballot, inclose it in an envelope addressed to the election officers and indorsed with the signature of the voter, and that it may be sent by mail or by private messenger to the officers of the election at any time prior to the formal closing of the polls; that on the day set for the election the polls shall be opened in the usual way, and that all voters who desire to do so may appear and deposit their ballots in person ; that the last-named privilege may be exercised by those who have as well as by those who have not already voted by mail; that each perso voting in person shall be checked upon the registry list as having voted ; that when the polls shall have been closed the election officers shall take the envelopes containing votes received by mail and shall carefully compare the indorsements with the names checked upon the registry lists, separate those votes of persons who have from those who have not afterward voted in person, open those of persons who have not appeared at the polls, count their votes with those which were cast in person, and declare the result upon the combined vote.

In order to guard against fraud it would be provided that all ballots transmitted by mail, including those superseded by personal votes, and therefore not opened, should be preserved until all contests arising out of the election have been decided ; and that immediately after the votes were counted, or on the day following, a postal card or other mail notice should be sent to each person registered as having voted by mail that he was recorded as having so voted. The object of such notice will be seen readily. It would be possible for an unscrupulous person, A, who knew or surmised that B would not vote, to take the ballot supplied to himself, mark it, forge B’s signature and send in the ballot by mail, and then go himself and vote in person. The notice to B would enable B to defeat the fraud by declaring that he had not voted. Should any one obtain possession of B’s blank ballot, fill it out and send it in, B would miss his ballot, would suspect wrongdoing, and would go to the polls and vote in person.

That the system here outlined would accomplish the main purpose for which it is suggested does not admit of a doubt. It gives to the citizen an additional method of casting a vote, and does not take away that which he has now ; it enables him to perform his political duties with a minimum expenditure of time and effort; and it gives him choice of time when he shall exercise his right instead of prescribing certain hours between which he must vote if he is to vote at all.

The important question then arises whether the system would be a dangerous one, — if it would open the door to frauds that cannot now be practiced, if it would be unworkable, if there exist any insurmountable objections to adopting it. The critic would naturally make, as the first objection, the point that the proposed system involves a radical change from the present method, and one not easy to be understood by the voters. He might also object to the expense of a system which would require a great increase in the cost of printing and of postage. But his more fundamental criticisms would be these: (1) that it would destroy the secrecy of the ballot; (2) that it would increase the danger of personating voters and the number of fraudulent votes ; and (3) that it would add to the power of the boss. Let us examine these objections briefly in the order mentioned.

The system does propose a radical change. But it need puzzle no voter to understand what is required of him, inasmuch as he could in the future continue to do what he has done in the past until he has mastered the difficulty of marking a ballot at home and sending it by mail to the voting place. It may be questioned if the rule that every would-be voter must appear in person at the polls would ever have been adopted if the post office had had an existence at the time when popular voting was introduced. The fact that a change proposed is contrary to all our experience is not in itself conclusive against a reform. In this case the proposition is to make use of a modern convenience not available when our voting habits and laws were framed. There are numerous societies in the country which hold their annual elections of officers wholly by mail vote. The elections are under none of the safeguards here proposed. It is frankly admitted that the evil consequences of fraudulent voting at such society elections would be as nothing to those that would follow fraud in the choice of public officers. But at this point we are considering only the difficulty of understanding the system.

It would add to the cost of one branch of election expense, — printing and postage. It would, on the other hand, render possible the constitution of larger election districts and a saving in the pay of election officers, inasmuch as a large proportion of the votes would be cast by persons who would take none of the time of election officers during the hours when the polls were open. Although no advantage were taken of this possibility, it might fairly be contended that if the scheme were effectual the additional expense would be well incurred.

We come now to more serious objections. The secrecy of the ballot is a privilege which perhaps is not desired at all times by any man; but there are few of us who do not occasionally deem it essential. It is a necessary feature of any system of mail voting that the elector shall identify himself by his signa ture, and a signed ballot cannot be secret. The election officers, if no others, have an opportunity to see for whom the citizen has voted. Therefore, whoever wishes that his vote shall be secret should not vote by mail. For his benefit it is provided in the scheme here outlined that he may exercise the right of voting in exactly the same way he now exercises it. But at every election a great majority of the voters do not make a secret of their action, and for their accommodation the open vote is admitted.

With reference to the danger of fraud by the personation of voters, it may be said that that danger now exists. The scheme under consideration really diminishes rather than increases it. Under the proposed system there is, of course, no greater and no less chance than there is now of “ repeating ” or of ballot-box stuffing. The qualifications of voters would be ascertained in the present mode, the registry would be used. and not more than one vote could be cast for any name registered. Moreover, since it would be necessary that every person presenting himself at the polls, who was not known to the election officers, should prove his identity, there would be no change in the amount of danger by physical personation. The danger is therefore limited to a possible unauthorized use of a voter’s privilege to cast a vote by mail. Signing a vote with another person’s name would be not merely the offense in law which it now is, but it would also be forgery. To defeat it we have the provision that notice shall be sent to each voter by mail that he is recorded as having so voted ; and the preservation of all ballots given in that way would secure a nullification of the fraudulent vote upon proof that the ballot was a forgery.

There is no doubt that any scheme of voting by mail would augment somewhat the power of bosses and the danger of bribery. Certainly the man who attempted to buy votes could make sure that the ballots were marked, signed, and mailed as he might direct. He could thus be sure of the “ delivery ” of the goods he had bought. The only way to defeat him would be by a subsequent personal vote by the man who had sold his vote. It is frankly admitted that here is the weak feature of the proposed system which the writer has found no way to strengthen. If it were possible to guard the approaches to the polling place so that the corrupter would not be able to see and intercept one attempting to nullify his mail vote, that would go far to obviate the difficulty. Probably it would be difficult if not impossible to do so. There will be those who will say that this is a fatal objection to the whole scheme. It might be at least a defensible position that a large increase of what we may term the respectable vote, induced by a considerable lightening of the duty of the citizen, would offset a corresponding increase of the purchasable vote.

But we need not take refuge in any such subterfuge as that. It is not pretended that the plan here proposed is perfect and final. It is a suggestion which may serve as the basis of a modern system of voting, adapted to the habits and to the conveniences of the close of the century. If the adoption of the mail ballot is desirable; if it would bring many people to the performance of their civic duties who now neglect them ; and if the only serious objection to it is that the form in which it is first presented increases the danger of corrupting the ballot; — surely the wise statesman will not turn away from the reform as hopeless, but will seek a method of avoiding that danger. After all, the question regarding the reform under consideration resolves itself into this: Is the personal presence of electors at the polls a condition essential to the maintenance of the present degree of the purity of the ballot ? If it is, there is an end to the discussion. If not, or if there be a doubt upon the subject, the invention of the necessary safeguards is worthy of most careful thought and study.

Edward Stanwood.