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Absentee ballotting fraught with risks, legal scholar says

Mark Reutter, Business and Law Editor
217-333-0568;reutter@uiuc.edu

4/13/2006

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The rising popularity of absentee voting, especially the use of “no-excuse” absentee ballots, poses a risk of vote tampering and election fraud, a University of Illinois legal scholar argues.

In the name of offering voters flexibility and saving the government money, more than 25 states, including California, Florida and Ohio, have enacted laws letting registered voters cast a ballot before Election Day without providing a reason.

In addition, 20 states permit early voting by mail, and about 15 states offer voters permanent absentee status, which lets them register to vote absentee for an indefinite period.

Jessica A. Fay writes that voting outside of the polling place on Election Day carries with it the danger that absentee ballots can be collected and turned in by partisans. Or that voters can be pressured by campaign workers or others in ways that are not possible when ballots are cast in secret at a polling booth.

“With a growing elderly population and insufficient absentee-ballot regulation, it may be only a short time before the public spotlight shifts from the remnants of the infamous butterfly ballot debacle of the 2000 presidential election to the increasingly critical issue of absentee voter fraud,” she wrote in the Elder Law Journal, published by the University of Illinois College of Law.

In many states with large numbers of seniors, including Illinois, allegations of absentee-ballot fraud have been reported. In Chicago, for example, a man reportedly helped 35 seniors apply for absentee ballots at a senior housing center during the 2002 primary, then returned several weeks later to illegally punch their signed ballots.

Traditionally, according to Fay, absentee voting was permitted only for limited groups of people, including soldiers and other U.S. citizens stationed abroad, and for voters with disabilities that restricted their ability to come to polling stations. “Over the last 30 years, there has been a significant movement away from the traditional polling place, instead embracing the concept of ‘convenience voting,’ ” she wrote.

Several factors have triggered this change, most notably a concern about the low voter turnout rates in America and the belief that absentee voting was a good way to increase turnout.

Among elderly voters, the problem of campaign workers interfering with voting, especially in retirement and nursing homes, has been documented in a number of jurisdictions. Several states require election officials to oversee balloting if a certain number of absentee ballots are requested at a retirement or nursing home, but most states have no laws tailored to curb absentee-voter abuse.

Especially under the system of no-excuse absentee voting, the possibilities of coercion or other irregularities are numerous. “Once an elector has qualified to vote in absentia, or is permitted to do so based on a state enacted no-excuse absentee voting provision, he or she receives a ballot in the mail, makes his or her balloting choices, and returns the ballot to the proper authorities. But what happens while the ballot is in the hands of the voter is unknown to election officials,” Fay wrote.

In 2002, Congress responded to the widespread flaws in the 2000 presidential election by requiring states to replace faulty punch-card systems. The federal Election Assistance Commission was set up to establish best practices for state and local voting systems.

The Illinois scholar calls on Congress to direct EAC to focus attention on
absentee-voting procedures, with a goal of “establishing the foundation of a more uniform and effective system of absentee voting.”

For example, the 2002 law requires that each state implement a “single, uniform, official, centralized, interactive computerized statewide voter registration list” that contains the name and registration information of every legally registered voter in the state.

By utilizing these databases, states could maintain accurate lists of absentee voters, thereby flagging irregularities in ballot submissions, such as unusual surges in the number of ballots cast in a particular jurisdiction.

Her article is titled, “Elderly Electors Go Postal: Ensuring Absentee Ballot Integrity for Older Voters.”