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Abolish Election Day

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3. Vote By Mail: The Time Has Come

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James K. Galbraith
James K. Galbraith is author of The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should...

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The remedy is voting by mail, the system now in place in the state of Oregon. In Oregon, there are no election day problems, because there is no election day. Instead, ballots are mailed to voters at their registered address, filled out and returned, with a signature verification. Participation rates are high--63 percent of the voting age population this year, against a national average of 53 percent. Fraud is virtually nil. And as the ballots are paper (they are read by a scanning machine), there is a verifiable paper trail.

Incidentally, Kerry did very well in Oregon. He beat his "expected vote" there by 17 percent, while Bush beat his by only 9 percent. Kerry's gain relative to Bush's in Oregon was his fifth-best overall and the best, for him, of any significant state. Thus Kerry sharply improved on Gore's narrow win in Oregon. It's likely that the fact that votes were cast early--closer to the debates and before the final advertising onslaughts--played an important role in this result. But this is not a partisan effect; the Democratic debate advantage is not an institutional matter. Had Bush won the debates, he likely would have sewed up the election immediately, under vote-by-mail.

Taking the Oregon system to the national level would have several dramatic effects. Voting would start weeks before the election day; thus the importance of an effective political organization to register voters and insure their participation would rise. Meanwhile, the role of advertising would decline. Late advertisements, which are often highly misleading, would be seen mainly by those who had already cast their votes. "October surprises," such as the late appearance of Osama bin Laden in the 2004 election, would lose their importance, for the same reason.

On election day there would be no bottlenecks at the polls, because there would be no polls. All the money spent on election officials would be saved. So would much now spent on voting machines. Only enough would be required to count ballots, over a period of weeks, at a central location in each county. Election day challenges and get-out-the-vote drives would end. Private corporations and their occult vote-counting machinery would be driven out of the elections business, into which they should never have been allowed to enter. The atmosphere of low-grade thuggery and suspicion that now surrounds the act of voting in many places would disappear. So would the corrosive doubts about the integrity of the outcome.

But most of all--and most wonderfully--vote-by-mail would end the practice of exit polls and the reporting of partial counts. And with that would end the noxious night of watching the networks pontificate about an outcome on which they have privileged, though usually defective, information. Instead, each state would report its tally when, at the end of the evening, the count is completed. There would be a relatively brief window of great excitement. Then the election would be over. And the result would be known. For sure.

Vote by mail could be put in place by a simple act of Congress, setting appropriate standards, or by state legislatures acting one by one. Unlike Electoral College reform it is not a constitutional matter. It would place voting on the same basis as filing taxes or filling out the census--processes no one supposes to be perfect, but that are largely handled with minimal and acceptable error. Instituting the Oregon system should be the first priority for electoral reform in the years ahead. It is the only way, currently available, to assure both the right to vote and the right to a clean and accurate count.

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