Election Common Sense
Worried about erosion of American democracy? Get back to basics on voting rules.
On July 1, 1776, America’s future was very much in doubt. After months of deliberation, the Second Constitutional Congress was deadlocked on the decision to sign and promulgate their Declaration of Independence. That night, delegate Caesar Rodney rode all night on horseback from Dover Delaware to Philadelphia, arriving at daybreak to deliver Delaware’s tie-breaking vote in favor. Delaware’s approval turned the tide, the remaining colonies stepped up, and our nation was born on July 4th.
The urgency was palpable. In America’s 13 original colonies there was no such thing as voting, and the mere idea of building a new nation ruled by its own citizenry was so compelling that Caesar Rodney was unwilling to let a moment go to waste.
Not so today. Election Day 2022 was two weeks ago. It took twelve days for the electorate to learn which party won majority control of the U.S. House of Representatives, and we’re still waiting for individual results in some contests. That may be the new normal, but it’s a self-inflicted wound and not OK. Post-COVID and post-Trump, we’ve backed into significant departure from prior, widely accepted election practice, including unrestricted mail-in voting in some states and with relaxed rules for acceptance of ballots received after Election Day.
The problem with protracted periods of vote tabulation behind closed doors is that they provide opportunity for malicious manipulation of accumulated voting data and, for that reason, they fuel the distrust and skepticism that have caused so much controversy with recent elections. That’s neither conspiracy theory nor accusation — it is simple fact. Time and opportunity are tempting.
Public uneasiness with various aspects of election process is growing on both left and right. GOP (red state) efforts to improve voter security are dismissed by Democrats as racist (the all-purpose rebuke); the lame duck Pelosi House continues to consider legislation to cement processes like unlimited mail-in voting. And Republicans now talk of adopting Democrat tactics, no doubt they can learn to harvest ballots as effectively as their opponents.
But before considering new legislation or new tactics, it’s worthwhile to ask ourselves what did we learn (again) from the election just this month? What kind of election reform actually makes sense? My thoughts:
1.) Election Day, not Election Month. Why not go for the gold? Let’s reestablish a one-day national election (a new national holiday), with all Americans voting in person (except in cases where that is not possible), rendering their electoral decisions based on the information publicly available as of that date, and with their votes tabulated and reported that evening. With modern technology, that is absolutely do-able, and it solves many of the problems that have bedeviled elections in recent years. And no one has to ride horseback through the night!
In that the above gold standard may prove politically unattainable, I’d offer the following compensating measures:
2.) Mail-in voting. While quick and easy, mail in voting poses obvious problem of diminished security — once a ballot is floating through the U.S. mail system, there is no chain of custody. Long periods of mail-in voting also encourage premature voter decision making. A recent example: many voters saw candidate John Fetterman in action (debating his opponent) after voting, and many surely had second thoughts — about one-third of his final vote tally had already been cast. Both issues argue for sharply limited time-periods and eligibility for mail-in voting.
3.) Distribution of mail-in ballots. In all cases, mail in ballots should be provided on request by registered voters, not bulk mailed. In a mobile population like ours, registered voter information is inevitably inaccurate. And the identification of each person who submits a ballot must be positively confirmed, in order to preclude redundant votes.
4.) Ballot harvesting. This is the #1 source of mischief. Any new process must severely constrain ballot collection measures that provide opportunity for improper influence on voters and/or mishandling of completed ballots.
5.) Vote counting. Votes received after election day should not be accepted. Voters who opt not to vote in person must take on the responsibility for getting their ballots in on time and accept the risk that late-arriving ballots will not be counted. A requirement that, in order to guarantee acceptance, ballots must be mailed one week prior to election day (as verified by postmark) would make it possible to count essentially all ballots — and report results with high confidence — on election day.
All who are concerned about the rumored erosion of American democracy, please keep in mind that its heart and soul is voting. No act of citizenship is more important. So, let’s stop angling for partisan advantage and just try to get it right.
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