August 3, 2010

Another Threat to Public Scrutiny of the Election Process

The Elimination of Polling Places through Adoption of No-Excuse Absentee Ballots—the First Step to All Mail-In Voting

By Madeline Rawley

As reported last month, the German Supreme Court ruled last year that the use of electronic voting machines in elections in Germany was unconstitutional because it violates the constitutional mandate that “all aspects of the election process must be available for public scrutiny.”

Meanwhile, here in Bucks County, we still must vote on these unreliable and unverifiable electronic machines. However, we do have very limited public scrutiny as pollworkers and poll watchers can watch absentee paper ballots counted by hand and observe their tabulation with machine counts in the polling place on election night. This tiny window of public scrutiny could disappear if Pennsylvania ever adopts no-excuse absentee ballots as 27 states have. (It may take a constitutional amendment.) No-excuse absentee ballots seem to be the first step to the elimination of polling places. In two states, Oregon and Washington, there are no polling places. All voters drop off or mail in their ballots.

One example of how a no-excuse absentee ballot voting state may turn into an all mail-in state can be seen in California. In their recent primary, in San Joaquin County, 49% of the voters sent in no-excuse absentee ballots. A county grand jury concluded that there was no longer a need for polling places and issued a call for all mail-in voting. Election officials like no-excuse absentee ballot voting because they don’t like having the public looking over their shoulders and finding pollworkers so they emphasize possible cost savings.

Here in Pennsylvania, well-intentioned groups like Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, and minority and disability organizations are in favor of no-excuse absentee ballots. These groups have not focused on the loss of public scrutiny that results when ballots are mailed in, kept, and counted at the courthouse. They are motivated by their belief that this method of voting will increase voter turnout. Most research studies have shown that voter turnout does not increase substantially; some studies have shown that there is no increase.

Another unfortunate effect of no-excuse absentee ballot voting is that voter fraud and intimidation may occur. In a primary election this year in New Jersey, which has no-excuse absentee voting, 49 unopened and uncounted absentee ballots mysteriously turned up in a closet in the courthouse when a recount in a close election was requested. (This is not unusual.) The recount produced a new winner. An investigation found that the 49 ballots had been delivered by three men. Some contacted voters denied having voted. The on-going investigation with its finding of fraud and intimidation is detailed in these newspaper articles here and here.

In addition to this threat to election integrity, the elimination of polling place voting reduces the sense of community that develops when voters meet pollworkers and other voters from their neighborhood in the polling place. If citizens vote at home and the ballots are handled by anonymous workers and counted by machine in the courthouse, not only is public scrutiny lost and opportunities for fraud increased, but a sense of community disappears.

Voting in public at your neighborhood polling place is needed in our increasingly isolated society where people interact with screens and phone instead of other people. In Pennsylvania today, if a person is not able to come to the polling place due to his or her duty to be elsewhere on election day or a physical disability, he or she can vote by absentee ballot. Allowing everyone to vote by mail is convenient, but is that the value that should take pre-eminence in a democracy when some of our citizens have put their bodies on the line for our democracy? Why can’t voters, in order to preserve the integrity of the election process, express their belief in democracy by going physically to a polling place two days a year?

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