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Election results are in: Absentee ballots lose

By Palm Beach Post Editorial

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Absentee voting is not the panacea the political parties claim it is. In fact, absentee voting is more prone to mistakes than touch-screen voting. But party operatives in Florida don't want voters to know that. Exploiting paranoia over touch-screen voting, they urged voters to cast ballots by mail last year to increase party turnout. When far too many voters take advantage of a system meant for far fewer, it causes more problems, not less.

Final tallies analyzed by the secretary of state's office showed that absentee voters were more likely than touch-screen voters to skip the presidential race in the November election. Nearly 1 percent of Palm Beach County absentee voters failed to pick a presidential candidate, more than twice the rate on the county's touch-screen machines. On touch screens, voters are prompted when they skip a race to go back and try again. That doesn't happen when they mismark a paper absentee ballot at home.
 Not only do voters using absentee ballots make more errors, many people don't get their ballots in the first place. In last year's election, too many did not. Election officials aren't required to track ballot requests. They have no way of knowing, except for irate phone calls, how many voters never get a ballot. In Palm Beach County, former Supervisor Theresa LePore estimated that she received 100,000 requests for 91,600 ballots cast. In Broward County, the elections chief called for a criminal investigation when workers detected a pattern of missing ballots. How can officials know whether ballots are missing if they don't track requests? In the computer age, elections officials no longer can argue they don't have enough time.

Some experts suggest that absentee voters be given a chance to correct mistakes as simple as forgetting to sign the envelope to guarantee that the vote is legitimate. Another common mistake is signatures that don't match the sample on file, often with young voters whose signatures are evolving. Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Arthur Anderson has taken steps to avoid another problem: letting voters know absentee ballots can't be forwarded by the post office.

Fixing voter errors, however, would force legislators to extend the 11-day period to certify an election. In Oregon, where all voting is absentee, voters are given a second chance to sign ballots, and officials have 20 days to issue final results. That's not necessary. Voters need to be responsible for filling out absentee ballot forms properly and keeping signature files current. They would be better served by leaving absentee voting to the people who really need it, the shut-ins and true out-of-towners. Early voting offers another option for voters absent on Election Day. To make absentee voting better, the state needs more restrictions, not fewer.

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