- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 28, 2006

ABSENTEE AND EARLY VOTING: TRENDS, PROMISES, AND PERILS

By John Fortier

AEI Press, $20, 104 pages

REVIEWED BY A.G. GANCARSKI

“The United States is undergoing a revolution in voting. Without great fanfare, our nation is steadily moving away from voting on election day.”

With these words, American Enterprise Institute research fellow John Fortier begins his book on an all-too-overlooked phenomenon — the dramatic and irreversible changes in American voting habits over the last quarter century. In the reckoning of Mr. Fortier, a weekly columnist for the Hill newspaper, Election Day is “quickly becoming a thing of the past,” with a series of “mini-Election Days” rendering the unifying civic experience of voting en masse on the first Tuesday in November obsolete.

There likely was no better time than now for AEI to release this volume. With a hotly contested midterm election upon us, it is useful to understand exactly how prevalent early voting has become, and what the ramifications of these systemic changes could be for the American system of representative democracy.

The United States has had a long acquaintance with absentee voting, and one of the strengths of this volume is its efficient summation of that history. First surfacing in the Civil War as a mechanism to afford Union soldiers suffrage, the practice was extended to address the needs of what Mr. Fortier calls “a more mobile populace seeking to exercise its right to vote.” Absentee voting for civilians began to surface early last century, but until recent decades, it was largely an underground phenomenon.

So what happened to set off the current trend? In the 1960s, states began to lift residency requirements that had served to limit absentee voting, in a response to what Mr. Fortier calls “an increasingly mobile population.” Soon thereafter, California and other western states began to embrace and promote absentee voting for the convenience of the electorate toward the end of the 1970s. Many states, like Oregon and Washington, began to embrace voting by mail (or, as Washington State calls it, “permanent absentee status”).

As with many superficially populist reforms, however, absentee voting has come with its attendant problems. As Mr. Fortier details, the potential for absentee ballot fraud is obvious, and that potential has been actualized repeatedly in recent years. The author believes that absentee voting ineluctably corrupts the integrity of the voting process, arguing that political parties manipulate the process, in many cases controlling the distribution of many of the ballots.

Along those lines, Mr. Fortier notes that when a ballot arrives in the mail, “there is nothing to stop a nosy spouse, unscrupulous boss, or other shady character from seeking to coerce the voter into casting it for a particular candidate or cause.”

Arguments have been made that absentee voting, as enacted in places like Oregon, has served to boost voter turnout. The author debunks that claim fairly readily, arguing that many of the places where absentee voting has become most prevalent were already high turnout states. While the “convenience” of absentee voting is a matter of public record, Mr. Fortier contends that said convenience has had a negligible effect on voter turnout.

Another problem with absentee voting, according to Mr. Fortier, is that the practice came into vogue without a “national debate” sufficient to justify the revolution in voting. Here the author’s argument flags, however momentarily. One wonders how a national debate of the type Mr. Fortier urges could possibly have happened, given that each state manages its elections as its policy-makers see fit.

Despite his acknowledgement of the problems with the practice, Mr. Fortier recognizes that nontraditional voting will be with us for the foreseeable future. In contemporary America, convenience is a trump card. The question confronting policy-makers, especially as the bloodbath of 2008 looms, is how to give people the convenience afforded by absentee voting while simultaneously protecting their secret ballot.

Mr. Fortier argues that the answer to security concerns rests in states facilitating early voting, and making it as attractive an alternative to absentee voting as possible. The author asserts that states should consider placing voting centers in “non-traditional” locales like shopping malls, in an effort to create a system that gives voters the convenience of absentee voting — while still ensuring the privacy and security of their ballot.

Equipped with myriad appendices and graphs supporting its argument, Mr. Fortier’s book is required reading for anyone seeking to understand how American voting patterns have radically and inexorably changed in recent years.

A.G. Gancarski writes from Jacksonville, Fla.


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