Fear of Terror, Fraud Dogs Vote-By-Mail
By Daniel Seligson, Staff Writer
But fears of violations of privacy, widespread voter fraud, a failure to follow instructions and even terrorism are growing just as quickly, casting doubt on the future of vote-by-mail and other forms of so-called convenience voting.
Denver County vote counters fearing ballots stuffed with anthrax or other biological agents will don masks and gloves as they tally ballots on Nov 6.
Across the state in Boulder, the first mail-in election in the county has been plagued with ballots with bad addresses. Of the 166,000 ballots sent to voters, nine percent have been returned, raising fears that only astute postal workers can safeguard against potentially widespread voter fraud in vote-by-mail contests.
In Flagstaff, Arizona, the Associated Press reported election officials fear a low turnout in a vote on a water purification measure because voters might toss their ballots, either fearing anthrax or misinterpreting the ballot as junk mail.
"The lack of privacy and security and the absence of the community experience on voting day could make other states that have not yet moved in this direction stop and think about whether this is really the way to go," said Thomas Mann, a scholar at the Brookings Institution. "There are enough states with a history of voter fraud that there could be a true debacle if they moved toward making voting more convenient."
Defenders of vote-by-mail, including the secretaries of state in Oregon and Washington, say casting ballots with stamps and signatures improve turnout by saving voters in remote areas long drives to polling places.
Sam Reed, Washington's secretary of state, told the state's congressional delegation to oppose any election reform bill that would outlaw vote-by-mail, including legislation by Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., that would require every vote to be tabulated at precincts so machines can identify ballot errors and give voters a chance to correct their ballots.
Reed said the delegation should fight any effort to outlaw centrally-counted voting, saying vote-by-mail is "tried-and-true" in the state and trusted by the voters.
What works out west, however, has not caught on elsewhere. Cameron Quinn, secretary of the Virginia State Board of Elections, said election administrators in the more heavily populated side of the country have a delicate balancing act.
"You want to make voting as convenient as possible...but you don't want to open the door to voter fraud," she said.
Other forms of so-called "convenience voting," such as early voting, are being tested in some California localities this year with hopes from officials that a more convenient way to cast a ballot will spur more citizens to vote.
A recent study by the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, a nonpartisan research group in Washington, found that early voting and no-excuse absentee voting hurt voter turnout in some states, while last year's vote-by-mail presidential election in Oregon showed "no positive effect on turnout."
Despite the problems with the system and the apparent lack of benefits, the number of voters seeking absentee ballots continues to grow.
Even in Virginia, where no-excuse absentee voting is prohibited, the number of voters eligible to vote by mail has steadily increased each year. The state recently started letting some Washington, D.C.-area commuters vote absentee because of traffic congestion.
Delays in the mail system in the U.S. capital region could stall the delivery of absentee ballots in the state as the Postal Service struggles to contain anthrax contamination at mail processing facilities, officials say.
Much less frightening problems have been found as well for example, a lack of pencils.
The Denver Post reported Thursday (10/25) that some of the county's 225,000 voters ignored instructions to fill out their ballots with pencil and instead have sent back their votes filled out in ink. The ballots will not be thrown out, but rather will have to be counted by hand and most likely by hands wearing gloves.