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Increase in Absentee Voting  - 2004-10-12

The Election Reform Information Project, a non-profit, bi-partisan organization, reports that 25 states and the District of Columbia now let residents cast absentee ballots. That's six more states than allowed the practice in the 2000 election.

Eligibility for requesting an absentee ballot varies from state to state, but reasons include needing to travel, having a physical disability or illness, active duty in the armed services or religious obligations. But the lack of consistency in tallying these votes has been strongly criticized because each state has its own system for gathering ballots. Opponents also say the system is susceptible to fraud or tampering because the ballots are returned by mail. Kosuke Imai (ko-su-KEE m-EYE), an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University, co-authored a Harvard study on absentee voting. He contends the whole system for verifying votes is flawed, not only because the procedures vary from state to state, but also because they can be influenced by political officials.

"There is no federal regulation as to what kind of procedure should be applied to the counting of overseas and absentee ballots, and that should be established. Because it depends on the state and a lot of times on ad-hoc procedure, there's no oversight. That is why all this political pressure creeps in." But Craig Shirley, a board member of the American Conservative Union, says voting safeguards usually are in place.

"There are, you know, certain certification processes you have to go through, whether it's notification or Social Security number things like that to verify your ballot. I think that most states have pretty good safeguards against abuse of the system." 25 states allow something called "no excuse" absentee voting. It permits any voter to appear at their local election offices prior to the election, complete an application, receive a ballot and vote.

The Northwest state of Oregon has taken this a step further. They conduct their balloting by mail, as opposed to voters physically going to a polling place.

John Lindback, the election director for Oregon, says all state elections since 1998 have been held this way and that the program is a success. He adds that voter turnout for the national election in 2000 was also quite good.

"Oregon's percentage of voters, registered voters, turning out for the 2000 presidential election was just shy of 80%. And on that gauge of percentage of registered voters turning out to vote, Oregon was number one in the nation."

Mr. Lindback says his system also has also taken precautions to guard against fraud or bias. For example, precinct workers must be of different political persuasions.

"All parties be represented when we have election boards involved in various steps in the process for moving a vote by mail ballot through the system."

Curtis Gans runs the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, which does research on voter participation. He says absentee voting is increasing under the premise that voting needs to be easier. But overall, he says these kind of incentives have had an adverse effect on the democratic process.

"There are leaders who are moving to procedural quick fixes like early voting and no excuse absentee and mail voting in Oregon. We have evaluated their impact on turnout and found that those procedures have essentially a negative impact on turnout."

Mr. Gans also says the problem with absentee participation is motivational, not procedural.

"If you're going to apply for an absentee ballot, you're likely to be a voter. You know, that's an intent. So those people, essentially, would be voters. And some of them fail to vote. But this procedure is essentially for lazy, upper-middle class and upper-class people who ought to be going to the polls in the first place."

Though absentee voting may be making it easier to vote, officials say the most important thing is that voters turnout to cast their ballots and that every vote is counted properly to complete a fair, democratic process.