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The Detroit News
Friday, July 2, 1999

Voting by mail hurts electoral process

By Deborah Phillips

When it comes to elections, state Rep. Joseph Rivet said in a press release announcing the introduction of legislation for voting by mail, Michigan is stuck in the 19th century.

What makes Rivets statement ironic is that it was indeed in the 19th century that Congress established a uniform national election day for federal elections.

Voting by mail is a system in which ballots are mailed to the homes of voters, who may vote (but not necessarily in secret) up to a month prior to election day. Advocates contend it increases voter turnout. The reality is that voting by mail does not necessarily increase voter turnout, it opens up a Pandoras box of potential fraud, and it is illegal for federal elections.

Although proponents may scoff that traditional elections are out of date, it was Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist No. 61 who noted that one positive advantage of the Elections Clause of the Constitution is the power it conferred upon Congress to establish uniformity in the time of [congressional] elections. Other framers shared this view. For example, a proponent of ratification defended the Elections Clause at the Pennsylvania ratifying convention on the grounds that congressional elections should be held on the same day throughout the United States, to prevent corruption or undue influence.

Acting pursuant to this constitutional authority, Congress in 1872 established the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, in even numbered years, as the day for the election of representatives. (In 1845, Congress had already designated this date for the holding of presidential elections.) Following ratification of the 17th Amendment, Congress again exercised its Election Clause authority, this time to establish a uniform national election day for senators.

In contrast to the mandate of the federal statutes, both vote by mail and the unlimited absentee balloting (which is voting by mail under a different name) proposed by Rep. Rivet would allow the election to be extended for weeks prior to election day an unambiguous violation of the law that all federal elections be held on a single day throughout the nation.

One of the reasons Congress set a single day was to avoid the possibility of vote fraud. Congress knew that early voting allows the unscrupulous to vote often. Unfortunately, voting by mail, in practice and in potential, is a ripe source of the very vote fraud that Congress feared.

In 1997, rampant absentee ballot fraud in the Miami mayoral race led to a court throwing out approximately 5,000 fraudulent absentee ballots and overturning the election. Fifteen people were eventually arrested, and the fraudulently elected incumbent was ousted from office. Rep. Rivet would have Michigan adopt the same election system that produced this electoral catastrophe.

Voting by mail and liberal absentee voting laws, when coupled with the motor voter act, which requires that states allow voter registration by mail without any form of identification, mean that it is painfully easy for ineligible, or even nonexistent, voters to get on the rolls and vote. Someone determined to steal an election could through public records identify fake registrants or those not likely to vote and send in fraudulent absentee ballot applications for them.

In addition, just imagine the chicanery possible when a stack of mail ballots arrives at a nursing home, union hall or church. It wouldnt take long for ballot parties to be planned, where members of a group bring their ballots to the hall and vote the right way in return for a free meal, entertainment or other rewards. Remember, with voting by mail, there is no more secret ballot, so the voters current right to vote his or her conscience in the polling booth would be lost.

Proponents are willing to risk all these problems at the altar of increased voter turnout. The problem is that the evidence suggests early voting doesnt increase voter turnout; in fact, it may decrease voter participation.

Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, has studied the impact of early voting and concluded in a recent Washington Post article that voter participation decreases in states with early voting because instead of mobilizing voters toward a particular point in the process, youre decreasing their focus and therefore reducing the degree of turnout.

Michael W. Traugott of the University of Michigan studied the Oregon vote-by-mail model and observed in the Washington Post that early voting tends to secure those already inclined to vote, rather than increase the rolls. The bottom line, however, as Bill Kimberling, deputy director of election administration at the Federal Election Commission, explained in the same Washington Post article, is that There are legitimate procedural concerns on how [mail balloting] works. ... You can have the highest turnout in the world, but if people dont believe the process was honest, then it really doesnt matter what the turnout was.

The reason why Michigan elections are, as Rep. Rivet notes, stuck in the 19th century is because the secret ballot and a set election day have worked for more than 125 years. Let us not abandon these cherished democratic traditions in pursuit of risky schemes that are likely to worsen the very voter turnout problem they are intended to solve.

Deborah Phillips is founder and president of the Voting Integrity Project, a Virginia-based nonprofit organization that is challenging early voting systems in federal court in Oregon and Texas. Write letters to The Detroit News, Editorial Page, 615 W. Lafayette, Detroit, Mich. 48226, or fax us at (313) 222-6417, or send an e-mail to

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