The absurd delays in ballot-counting across the country add weight to arguments against the wide use of early- and mail-in voting. They also should make opponents of early voting consider other alternatives that would make voting easier.
The case against widespread early voting already was substantial. Having a single, national Election Day is a civic ritual useful for a sense of shared national purpose, and it also ensures that most voters will cast ballots with access to the same bank of information. As it is, early voters operate without knowledge of any late-breaking news, including sudden health problems that candidates may experience. Wars or threats of war, big economic developments, and major scandals all can erupt in the final weeks of a campaign. To the greatest extent possible, voters should know all these things before going to the polls.
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It also should be beyond dispute that massive mail-in voting increases the opportunities for problems, even if for honest error or incompetence rather than deliberate fraud. An official commission co-chaired by former President Jimmy Carter in 2005 found that widespread mail voting is more open to fraud than same-day voting, and less than a decade ago, the liberal New York Times was reporting, without dissent, that “votes cast by mail are less likely to be counted, more likely to be compromised and more likely to be contested than those cast in a voting booth.”
Even without fraud, jurisdictions all across the country this year have experienced major screw-ups because mail-in voting went awry. They range from the 223,000 undeliverable ballots in a Las Vegas primary to the 100,000 misprinted ballots mailed to New York voters this summer. Two New York congressional primaries were almost entirely botched because of mail-in snafus.
Now, we all see the confusion, misstatements, extravagant rumors, from a half-dozen closely contested states, all while the states take an excruciatingly long time to count the votes that arrived by mail. National patience wears thin, conspiracy mongers run rampant, and trust in our election system further erodes. Most of these problems would be obviated if states went back to old-style restrictions on early voting, allowing the practice only for “absentee” votes for limited, declared reasons. Problems with chains of custody would be reduced that way, as would the problem of relying on an unreliable Postal Service. Alternatively, the early voting period could be reduced.
On the other hand, the huge voter turnout this year does raise other issues of most voters having to wait for in-person voting on one day. Extremely long lines are a deterrent to voting, especially for people with inflexible work hours and for the infirm. If localities provide too few polling locations, transportation to and from the polls can be a challenge.
In return for reasonable limits on early voting, reformers should push for better election-management procedures nationwide. Even conservatives, who balk at the federal government’s involvement in most affairs, should accept that it can play a supporting role without trampling state control of elections. Federal financial aid should supplement local spending on federal elections to provide more polling locations, more poll watchers, longer voting hours, and (crucially) better ballot security without intimidation or suppression. Perhaps all businesses should give workers a half-day of paid leave to facilitate voting.
These are ideas that should be considered and debated, and there are certainly others. All sides have an incentive to work together on this for the greater good.
States, too, should step up. They need to make competent, transparent, well-explained, secure, and timely vote-counting systems a high priority. Election Day should not mean Election Two Months before balloting, nor Election Two Weeks afterward. With modern technology, there is no good reason for any locality to take more than 24 hours to count all votes (except perhaps for military ballots cast abroad).
So, early voting should be radically reduced if not entirely eliminated, and the process of voting and counting should be reformed across the board. Confidence in our elections and in our constitutional system depends on it.
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