Jewish World Review Dec. 13, 2001 / 28 Kislev, 5762
John H. Fund
Just last month, a media consortium's examination of Florida's 170,000 disputed ballots again provided some evidence that George W. Bush won the state under all conventional recounting standards. While the consortium's findings are diluted by the fact it couldn't find 1% of the disputed ballots, its likely conclusion is that Al Gore would only have won if highly elastic counting methods were deployed--the very sort, in fact, that Mr. Gore never asked for in court.
But there is one other scenario under which Mr. Gore could very plausibly have won; if new liberalized absentee and early voting laws had not been in place last year. I'm not just talking about the military ballots that Democrats got beaten up for challenging. On average, in the 2000 election one-quarter of all votes were cast either absentee or in early voting. If more of those voters had cast ballots on the actual election day, there is evidence Mr. Gore would've picked up votes.
In part because of this the Democrats might do better to look for ways to reform the voting system that would actually improve elections, instead of just making sure the laws do not advantage Republicans. Ultimately, these laws hurt the Democrats more profoundly than the most-talked about events in Florida ("butterfly" ballots, hanging chads). The Republicans might wish to join the critical scrutiny, for the best evidence suggests that early/absentee voting no longer favors the GOP and also doesn't increase turnout. What's more, it makes exit polls much less reliable, alters campaigns in strange ways and makes voter fraud easier.
Let's look at the issue from the Democrats' perspective. Analysts agree that Mr. Gore had a last-minute surge in support, fueled in part by negative reaction to the news of Mr. Bush's 1976 driving under the influence arrest, which hit five days before Election Day. If more people had cast ballots on that day, rather than earlier, Mr. Gore would probably be president today. The DUI incident hurt Mr. Bush. A Gallup poll indicated that 10% of independents were "less likely" to vote for Mr. Bush, and exit polls showed 28% found the issue very or somewhat important. Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's top strategist, told a symposium that the incident cost his boss the popular vote and at least one state. Luckily for him, the fact that more than half the states had either liberalized absentee voting rules or allowed early voting meant that many voters had already "locked in" their preference before the DUI revelations. There was no way they could change their vote.
One doesn't even have to discuss Florida to ponder what might have been. Tennessee allowed people to vote at government offices starting three weeks before the election. Mr. Gore lost his home state because "he did not pay enough attention to it and was late in making personal appearances and putting up TV ads," notes U.S. News & World Report's Roger Simon. Because a full 36% of Tennessee's voters cast their ballots before Election Day "many of them missed Gore's attempt to win the state."
In Florida, Brill's Content found that "Voter News Service, and the networks it works for, failed so spectacularly because it didn't factor in the massive shifts in how Americans vote." Absentee voters, by definition, can't be included in surveys of voters as they exit the polls.
VNS clearly underestimated the number of absentee voters in Florida, ultimately well over 10% of the total. It retracted its first call of Florida for Mr. Gore at 10:13 p.m. by telling the networks: "We are still examining the absentee vote." VNS Editorial Director Murray Edelman admitted to his board on Nov. 14 that: "The biggest problem in the model is that we did not correctly anticipate the impact of the absentee vote." Absentee voting used to be available only to those legitimately out-of-town or physically unable to vote in person. At the state level, 13 states have recently allowed residents to vote 17 to 21 days before Election Day. At least 18 other states have opened absentee voting to all comers. Oregon has abolished the polling place altogether, and switched to 100% mail-in voting. As the arguments against promiscuous absentee or early voting mount, it is time to rethink this trend.
Early voting hasn't boosted voter turnout. Despite featuring a presidential race that was tied in the polls, the 2000 election saw only 50.7% of eligible voters show up, a fraction more than the 49.1% who voted in the ho-hum 1996 race. Turnout increased by 1.5% in states with liberal absentee voting and by 2.6% in states without it.
Curtis Gans, the director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, says that all the studies "are unequivocal in showing that easy absentee voting decreases voter turnout." This is because "you are diffusing the mobilizing focus away from a single day and having to mobilize voters over a period of time." Mr. Gans notes that the people who are really helped by absentee voting are those who would cast ballots anyway, often "lazy middle class and upper-middle class people."
Mr. Gans notes that there's a Republican perspective, too. As Democrats have done better with upper-income voters--Mr. Bush won only 54% of those earning over $100,000 a year--the old GOP advantage among absentee voters has faded. Indeed, it was late-counted absentee votes that increased a Gore popular vote lead of 190,000 nationwide on Election Night to 539,000 in the final count. Mr. Gans estimates that up to 25% of votes were cast by mail or in early voting, up from only 5% or 10% in 1980.
It should also be cause for concern that absentee voting allows voters to cast ballots before they might receive useful information, or telling insights into candidates. Ross Perot suffered his melt-down on "60 Minutes," in which he accused Republicans of disrupting his daughter's wedding, only nine days before Election Day in 1992. That same year, Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh indicted Caspar Weinberger and other figures in the Iran-Contra scandal only four days before Election Day. The John Huang campaign fundraising scandal accelerated in the days just prior to the 1996 election. Author Elizabeth Drew quotes Bill Clinton as admitting the Huang scandal prevented the Democrats from regaining control of the House.
Absentee voting also clearly increases the potential for fraud. "The lack of in-person, at-the-polls accountability makes absentee ballots the tool of choice for those inclined to commit fraud," the Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded in 1998, after a mayoral election in Miami was thrown out when it was learned "vote brokers" had signed hundreds of phony absentee ballots. It was after that scandal that Florida tightened its absentee ballot laws, changes that proved very helpful to Mr. Gore during the recount.
Also in 1998, former Democratic Congressman Austin Murphy of Pennsylvania was convicted of absentee ballot fraud. "In this area there's a pattern of nursing-home administrators frequently forging ballots under residents' names," says Sean Cavanagh, a Democratic county supervisor who uncovered the scandal and was so disowned by his party that he turned independent. CBS's "60 Minutes" created a stir in 1999 when it found people in California using mail-in forms to register fictitious people, or pets, and then obtaining absentee ballots in their names.
Former Democratic Rep. Toby Moffett can attest to the last-minute surprises that absentees create. In the late 1980s, he won the Democratic Connecticut governor primary on the day of the primary, but ended up losing by 43 votes after absentees were counted. Several of his opponent's supporters were later arrested for absentee ballot fraud, but the news came too late to meet the deadline for asking the courts for a new election.
In addition to the way it makes fraud easier to commit, absentee voting also increases the costs and difficulty of campaigns. "Candidates now have to maintain a very high profile for the entire period and can't just focus on one day," says Richard Smolka, publisher of a newsletter for election officials. In close races, a flood of absentee ballots can delay the results of elections for weeks. "Washington state has regressed in being able to declare a winner since absentee voting exploded," says John Carlson, a talk-show host in Seattle. In his state, Democrat Maria Cantwell belatedly won a crucial U.S. Senate race by 2,200 votes. "Can anyone say it was a good thing the country had to wait until December 1 to learn the U.S. Senate would be tied for the next six months?" asks Mr. Carlson.
Numerous analysts, from George Will on the right to Norman Ornstein on the left, have decried the transformation of voting into an act of convenience rather than communal pride. Absentee ballots not only dispense with the privacy curtain of the voting booth, but, as Mr. Will notes, "consign to private spaces the supreme moment of public choice. Election Day should be the exhilarating central episode of our civic liturgy."
It's past time for the states to reconsider allowing all voters such an
easy rush to judgment. They should rein in absentee and early voting.
For if the present trends continue, we will become a nation where half
of us vote on Election Day and the other half . . . well,
12/07/01: Let our students keep their cell phones