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Mail-In Ballots - No Cure-All for Voting Ills

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Weekly Voting Rights News Update

By Erin Ferns

The convenience of absentee balloting is a double edged sword in the world of elections for its positive reception by voters, but negative effect on accurate and legitimate ballot counting, an issue that recently cropped up in Ohio, raising concerns for the 2008 election.

A major flaw in the state's newly adopted “no-fault” absentee voting law emerged in the recent Akron City Council election, where the candidate won her election by three votes with 200 absentee ballots left uncounted due to Postal Service delays.

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“Next year, Ohio is once again expected to be ground zero in the presidential election,” wrote Akron Beacon Journal columnist, Steve Hoffman on Thursday.

“No-fault” absentee voting allows eligible citizens to request absentee ballots without stating a reason. Because of this, the number of absentee voters is expected to “jump considerably.” In Summit County alone, officials estimate absentee voter turnout will leap from 34,000 ballots in 2004 to 50,000-60,000 in 2008. Currently, 29 states permit “no-fault” absentee voting.

“With numbers like that in a single county, and a tight race for Ohio's 20 electoral votes forecast, an entire presidential election could be cast into doubt,” he wrote. “Resolving issues surrounding absentee voting before next year may not be the only concern when it comes to getting an accurate count in November 2008, but it could be the most important.”

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Hoffman writes of Democratic state representative Stephen Dyer, who has crafted a bill that would help resolve the issue with uncounted absentee ballots. Currently, state law requires all absentee ballots to be received at elections boards before voting ends, with or without postmarks. Overseas ballots are the only exception.

“Dyer's bill would open up a 10-day period after Election Day for absentee ballots to come in, the same as allowed for overseas ballots.” If the absentee ballots have postmarks (which are not required on Dyer's bill), they “would have to be marked before Election Day or, if sent on Election Day, received the same day.”

The counting of ballots without postmarks may compromise the integrity of Ohio elections as it “opens a door to potential fraud through the corruption of individual employees, either at election boards or post offices,” Hoffman wrote.

However, “despite hysteria from the right about voter fraud, very few instances have cropped up in Ohio,” he wrote.

Hoffman refers to the plethora of media reports on voter fraud which are primarily based upon anecdotal evidence. Scientific or systematic research into the claims is rarely conducted by these news outlets. Additionally, such outlets seldom use any of the recent academic reports showing the rarity of voter fraud, such as the one published by Project Vote this past March called The Politics of Voter Fraud.

However, in a time where the myth of voter fraud is being used to enact disenfranchising laws, such as requiring voter ID at the polls, Ohio has actually expanded a law that makes it easier to engage in voter fraud in the one area we know it exists – absentee balloting.

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Instances of absentee fraud arise most often in local, county or community elections, taking one of the following four forms: (1) forging signatures; (2) coercing or influencing a vote; (3) vote buying; and (4) misappropriating absentee ballots.

“Is the low level of fraud reason to expand no-postmark absentee voting the way Dyer wants to? Given next year's high-stakes presidential election in Ohio, greater caution will probably prevail.”

Hoffman lists some ways to improve absentee balloting, including working with the Postal Service to ensure timely delivery, something included in Dyer's bill. He also discusses using envelopes marked for high-priority handling, as well as the use of “drop-off boxes” that would be emptied by elections board members. Project Vote also recommends signature verification; tabulation of votes as soon as ballots are received; ensuring that ballots cannot be forwarded; regulating “electioneering”; imposing significant sanctions for misappropriation of a ballot; and regulating delivery by partisan organizations, among others. For more information on absentee voting, please see this Project Vote report.

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