...And Into Other Supposed 'Solutions' to Our Current Electoral Woes...
By Brad Friedman on 11/9/2008, 1:18pm PT  

-- Brad Friedman, The BRAD BLOG

"DavidNYC" at DailyKos files a well-meaning diary today headlined "How I Became a Vote-by-Mail Convert" in which he offers some reasons, after years of opposing it, that he now supports VBM based on his experience as a poll watcher last Tuesday.

I've previously offered just a few of the most noteworthy reasons that I believe VBM is a terrible idea for democracy, even as I realize that many hard partisans --- from both sides of the political aisle --- love the idea of VBM as it tends to increase turnout and allows them to target their voters quite directly. Lists of who already voted are routinely made available to the major political parties in the days leading up to the election, allowing them to more specifically target their expensive Get Out the Vote (GOTV) efforts on, and before, Election Day.

That's swell for partisans, but not so good for many of us who are more concerned that voters be allowed to vote freely, and that their votes be counted accurately and transparently. And some of "DavidNYC's" thoughtful arguments are misleading at best...

While partisans tend to favor VBM, it seems that most election integrity advocates do not, even though there are notable exceptions there as well, including several of whom I much respect, even if I disagree with them on this point. For example, my friend and colleague (and frequent BRAD BLOG contributor) John Gideon of VotersUnite.org does not oppose VBM, and CA SoS Debra Bowen and I have gone back and forth on this, as she tends to advocate for the idea.

The ensuing discussion over at dKos, on "DavidNYC's" piece today, is a good one. The comments there offer many good points on all sides. It's very important to have intelligent democratic (small "d") discussion and informed, genuine debate before leaping into any perceived "solution" to our current horrific electoral woes. But just because something seems like a good idea at first blush, doesn't necessarily make it so. Yes, voters in Oregon tend to love their all-VBM system. That doesn't mean it's necessarily good for democracy, any more than those voters who, according to studies, say they enjoy voting on touch-screen voting machines makes it a wise idea to vote on such a system on which it is strictly impossible to verify that any single vote has ever been recorded accurately as per any voter's intent.

I'm happy to see discussion on this, such that any electoral reform to come --- and lord knows we desperately need it --- needs to come about out of an informed debate, rather than knee-jerk reactionism. To that end, while I recommend reviewing many of the smart comments on "DavidNYC's" article, I wish to quickly respond to several fallacies he offers in support of his main argument.

Writes "DavidNYC" in his dKos diary:

Voting by mail doesn't just solve the "wrong polling place" problem, it solves the broken voting machine problem, the incompetent poll worker problem, the long line problem, the voter intimidation problem and a whole host of others.

Allow me to take on each of those one by one...

'Wrong Polling Place Problem'

Yes, while VBM may help to resolve the "'wrong polling place' problem" --- "DavidNYC" describes watching voters in CT stand on line for 45 minutes, only to reach the front of the line and find out they're at the wrong precinct --- that's not the only way to solve the problem. Nonetheless, it's the most persuasive of the arguments he presents in that graf.

'Broken Voting Machine Problem'

VBM paper ballots are also counted, in secret (inside the machine) by flawed, error-prone and easily-manipulated voting machines which are made by private companies and run on secret software.

It is also much harder for citizens to oversee the counting of those ballots since, for instance, when 437 voters show up to a polling place and sign the register to that effect, we know that there should be 437 ballots counted from that precinct (no matter how they are counted, by op-scan or by hand). It's difficult, if not impossible, to have that same sort of oversight and reconciliation for VBM ballots since they are all generally tossed into a single "super precinct" for counting purposes, and it's impossible to know how many ballots should be in that pile.

As to actual broken voting machines that keep people from being able to cast their vote at the polls on Election Day. Well, ban all Direct Recording Electronic (DRE, usually touch-screen) voting machines --- the type which, when they break down, mean that people can't cast a vote at all --- and the "broken voting machine problem" goes away. Even with optical-scan tabulating devices, even if they break down, voters can still vote anytime, anywhere with paper ballots at the polls. As long as we ban god-forsaken DREs or other similar computerized vote-casting and ballot-marking devices once and for all, broken machines should never be a barrier to folks being able to cast their vote. The optical-scanning of ballots happens at the end of the voting process, and even if that machine breaks down (and it frequently does, as it did at my poll this Election Day), the paper ballot can be tallied later at county headquarters. No delay or disenfranchising of voters need occur.

Going to VBM in order to counter "the broken voting machine problem" is akin to going to war with Iraq because we were attacked by 19 Saudi Arabians.

'Incompetent Poll Worker Problem'

This one somewhat offends me. Poll workers should be celebrated, supported and thanked the way we thank troops who volunteer to serve our nation on the battlefield. It's a thankless job, carried out by usually quite dedicated people, under enormous duress, for ridiculously long hours, for often little or no pay. Where "incompetence" tends to come in, it's where these patriotic folks have been saddled with too many responsibilities, overly complicated rules and procedures, and ridiculously complex and poorly designed systems that are not created with the completely-predictable mission critical specificities that everyone understands before deploying them.

It's true, many poll workers are not rocket scientists. Nor should they have to be. But even when they are --- eg. when Johns Hopkins computer science professor Avi Rubin worked the polls during the 2006 Primary Election in Montgomery County, MD and even he couldn't fix the problems with the new Diebold e-pollbooks stupidly deployed by the state --- they should never be asked to be IT specialists or any of the other duties they have now been given, largely by election officials who haven't properly thought things through, and elected officials who are hoping to make the process as complicated as possible in order to help keep as many voters from voting as possible.

Please lay off the poll workers, and be one of them next time instead.

'The Long Line Problem'

Again, we have another "problem" that could be solved by more sensible means. Expanded early voting (even while I have concerns with our current processes for that as well, I believe they could be overcome with smart attention given to those concerns), rollback of anti-voter "registration validation", increased numbers of voting stations and the ban of DRE/touch-screen voting machines would go a long way towards solving that problem.

Also, making Election Day a holiday would ease the crush of voters turning out at once (at poll opening before work, during work lunch hour, or after the work day). Though I'd recommend changing Election Day to a Wednesday when making it a holiday, so that a Tuesday holiday doesn't simply turn into a long out of town 4-day holiday weekend for many.

'The Voter Intimidation Problem'

Of all the problems "DavidNYC" suggest might be solved by VBM, this is the weakest argument, if only because voter intimidation would likely become worse with VBM, rather than better.

Yes, we'd be able to end polling place intimidation, where it exists, but the routine buying and selling of ballots could become a nightmare. Thuggish, anti-American employers might require employees vote a certain way, and force them to prove it by instructing them to show their ballots before they are mailed in, abusive husbands may force their wives to vote a certain way, etc. etc.

Another corollary problem is the buying and selling of votes. Does anybody think a party that spends millions to keep people from voting, by any means necessary, even going so far as to create an office to jam GOTV efforts by the other side (see Republican Party, New Hampshire, 2002) would not find a way to offer a few bucks for proof of a ballot cast the "right" way?

Both intimidation and vote-buying/selling of that sort can, of course, already be done with the absentee ballot mail system already in use in most states, but I see no reason to institutionalize the practice, expand it, and make it worse than it may already be.

Remember, if the bad guys can find a way to gain a few votes --- by hook or by crook --- they will. We've got a rich history in this country to prove it. And even if you think that would only be a minor problem (and I'm not sure why you'd think that), why don't you ask Al Franken or Norm Coleman in Minnesota, where their U.S. Senate race currently stands at a 221 vote margin, if they would have minded if a few Walmart employees or union workers, out of the 3 million voters who cast ballots in that race, were forced to vote a certain way or otherwise face possible job loss, or if it would have been okay that some "well-meaning" supporter was willing to offer some neighbors $5 per vote.

Anyway, the discussion of these matters, as noted, is a good one. And there are many others related to the absolute necessity for Election Reform that we now face, that we must have now and in the very near future. But let's be careful not to leap before we look this time, lest we end up with another nightmare akin to the one that the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 --- pushed through Congress as a supposed response to the FL 2000 debacle --- has wrought.

HAVA has made things far worse, rather than better. It's gonna take many years to unwind the utter havoc and loss of transparency and ability for citizen oversight that that piece of legislation brought to our American elections. So can we please take care to not make a similar mistake again this time? Pretty please?

Previously Related at The BRAD BLOG...
"Why 'Vote-by-Mail' Elections are a Terrible Idea for Democracy"

The No Vote by Mail Project

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