By Rob Roper
Over just the past handful of election cycles we’ve seen a number of rule changes that have radically altered the way we cast our ballots and, as a result, changed the way politicians campaign. We now have things like “same day (or “election day”) registration,” “automatic registration,” “early voting” as much as forty-five days out, and an explosion in the number of people voting absentee. These and other reforms were sold to us as conveniences, and in some ways they are, but they come with some unpleasant and even dangerous side effects.
Take, for example, early voting. It’s no longer “election day,” it’s election-month-and-a-half. Now, politicians have to sustain a get-out-the-vote effort over six weeks rather than just one day. This takes a lot more resources. Campaigns need to run more political advertisements to cover the longer period of time, send more direct mail, get their lawn signs up much earlier, etc. To do all this, they need to raise more money.
So, if you’re one of the people who thinks our elections take a ridiculous and agonizingly long time, that politicians spend too much time chasing cash and are too beholden to those who give it to them, and, please, for the love of God, stop with the weeks and weeks of robo-calls… thank early voting. This “reform” is making all these aspects of elections worse.
There is another disturbing consequence to early voting as well. It is an incumbent protection measure. With voters able to cast ballots forty-five days before the official election day, politicians are incentivized to encourage their voters to do so. Especially incumbents, who know that if they can get you to vote early, you won’t be spending that six weeks of prime campaign season getting to know their challenger. Once they’ve got your vote, you can’t take it back.
If you vote early because you’re excited about the presidential or gubernatorial race, but haven’t had time to learn about the down ticket candidates, you’re more likely to just vote for the name you know, which is more often than not the incumbent. There are lots of unfair advantages incumbents have in election. Early voting is just one more.
But, the most dangerous consequence of early voting is how we’re doing it: absentee.
It used to be that voting by absentee ballot was rare and required a legitimate, officially approved excuse. There was a reason for this. When we vote at a proper polling location we confirm that we are who we say we are when we check in, and when we go into that private booth election monitors are there to ensure we cast our vote in secret, free of any outside coercion. It is a secure system.
In other words, the physical polling place is the mechanism by which we guarantee and sustain two key principals of our democracy: the secret ballot and one-person, one-vote. But, we are thoughtlessly and with the encouragement of our politicians, throwing this away.
Roughly one third of all ballots cast in Vermont during the last election (over 95,000) were early/absentee, and the percentage seems to go up every election. Election officials honestly have no idea who filled out these ballots or under what circumstances. Did the voter’s abusive spouse fill out the ballot? Was a partisan campaign worker looking over the voter’s shoulder telling them who to vote for? Did somebody steal the ballot and fill it out in someone else’s name? Nobody knows for sure.
In actual polling places it is against the law to electioneer. No one can pass out literature or even wear a button or a t-shirt supporting a candidate to influence a voter filling out a ballot. Again, there’s a good reason for this, but these rules don’t apply and cannot be enforced at one’s mailbox/kitchen table.
There are legitimate and illegitimate ways to take advantage of this lack of security, but none of them are particularly savory.
In a three-part investigation into voter fraud by the Christian Science Monitor, CSM makes the argument that if Russia, or some other entity foreign or domestic, is going to successfully rig one of our elections, absentee ballots and early voting is how they are likely to do it. They won’t hack the voting machines directly, they will infiltrate the voter rolls, identify and/or create large pools of registered non-voters who either won’t know or won’t care that their votes are being stolen, and they will collect and cast absentee ballots under these “voters” names.
While there is no evidence of this kind of operation happening on a large scale yet, CSM cites a number of examples of how this kind voter roll manipulation coupled with the use absentee ballots has influenced elections on a smaller scale. One example (not mentioned by CSM) is from Victory, Vermont, where the Town Clerk and justices of the peace allowed ineligible non-residents to vote absentee, successfully altering the outcome of an election.
Our politicians tell us that they are implementing these election reforms for our convenience. But, Thomas Jefferson did not warn that the price of liberty is eternal convenience. Creating loose registration requirements, easy access to absentee ballots, and extended voting periods, and removing voting from supervised locations, gives bad actors the tools and time necessary to commit meaningful election fraud. The unscrupulous are already taking advantage of this on a small scale. It’s only a matter of time before someone exploits these holes in our electoral system big time.
Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute.