Though November may still seem far off,
voting in this year’s presidential race began Monday when
North Carolina started distributing absentee ballots.
Traditionally, absentee ballots were only available to those who
physically could not make it to polling places. In recent years,
however, there has been a shift to allow more people to vote
absentee, and at least 26 states no longer require that absentee
voters be unable to go to the polls. Oregon voters even approved a
1998 ballot measure that replaced traditional elections with voting
by mail.

Beth Dykstra

The loosening of restrictions on absentee voting is a welcome
change, as this gives voters a convenient way to cast a ballot and
encourages higher voter turnout. However, increased absentee voting
brings an increased potential for vote fraud. State and local
elections officials must work to assure absentee voters that their
votes are as secure as those cast at polling places.

Absentee ballots are a tempting target for those who would
tamper with elections. Prosecutors in at least 15 states have filed
charges in vote fraud cases involving absentee ballots in the last
four years. One case in Ohio involved a Republican election worker
in the 2000 election allegedly changing the votes of nursing home
residents. In the Detroit suburb of Ecorse, three city council
members pled guilty last year to forging signatures and modifying
absentee ballots with white-out. Perhaps more troubling are cases
in which voters have been enticed to vote absentee in exchange for
various rewards: concert tickets in North Carolina, flasks of
whiskey and $15 in West Virginia and jobs at polling places paying
$100 in East Chicago, Ind., where the state’s supreme court
voided the primary election.

The risk of fraud inherent in a system in which voting does not
occur under the direct supervision of elections officials has been
greatly magnified by state laws that fail to require sufficient
safeguards for absentee ballots. States often make no effort to
verify the signatures on absentee ballots. Out of 19 battleground
states in this year’s election studied by The New York Times,
only six require witness signatures on absentee ballots. Though no
one would allow a party headquarters to be used as a polling place,
seven of these battleground states allow political parties to
collect completed absentee ballots, raising the possibility that
partisans could discard votes for an opponent.

Concrete steps that can be taken to guarantee the security of
absentee ballots include prohibiting political parties from
handling ballots. By some estimates, as much as one-quarter of the
electorate will cast absentee ballots this fall. Absentee voters
deserve to have their votes counted fairly and should not have to
fear fraud more than those who cast their votes in traditional
polling places on Election Day.

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