Other Balloting Reforms Should Take Precedence
Dueling Party Chiefs
This is the fourth of a series in which Moore County’s Republican and Democratic party chairmen will address various political issues. The issue discussed is elections. Jim Heim is chairman of the Moore County Democratic Party. Robert M. Levy is chairman of the Moore County Republican Party. For Levy's take, click here.
After every election, it seems, we decry the low voter turnout and then move on to other topics. But having just experienced a set of runoff elections with a voter participation under 5 percent, maybe we should spend some time considering ways to make the system work better.
First, let’s shorten the time between elections and runoffs. The six-week period prescribed by North Carolina law delays the candidate selection process and dampens voter enthusiasm needlessly. Arkansas recently decided its senatorial nomination in three weeks, a more reasonable span. Surely we can do as well.
To take this one step further, we might introduce instant runoff voting (IRV). Invented in the United States and used by several countries as well as many U.S. cities (including nearby Cary), IRV allows a voter to select candidates for a given position in order of preference.
If no one gets the required majority, the ballots for the bottom candidate are checked to see the next preference, and those votes are added. The process is repeated until a winner is declared. In this way the “runoff” is part of the original process and a second trip to the polls is avoided.
A truly innovative approach enacted by voters in Oregon in 2000 replaced polling booths with a vote-by-mail system. As implemented, a ballot is mailed to every registered voter a few weeks before Election Day. This allows the voter to carefully consider each choice, with time to study candidate positions in detail. Then the ballot is mailed or dropped off at selected sites.
On arrival, the outer envelope is scanned by computer and the voter’s signature is compared with the one on file for authenticity, after which the ballot is removed and stored until being counted on Election Day.
In the years since the adoption of vote-by-mail, Oregon has enjoyed much higher voter turnout, significantly lower election costs and no election-related controversies.
During the most recent primary election season, Oregon enjoyed a voter participation of 41.6 percent, compared with 14.4 percent here. And there is automatically a paper trail to allow corrections should a dispute arise. Despite warnings from skeptics, there has been no evidence of voter coercion or tampering.
Many states have eased the requirements for absentee balloting during the past few years, a kind of “back-door” mail-in voting system. Sadly, North Carolina has not. A voter must still request the ballot with a handwritten note, and the voting process must be witnessed by two adults willing to sign the ballot return envelope.
Such an arcane requirement seems a vestige of a time when voting was being discouraged. It does little to enhance ballot security and should be scrapped.
The savings that vote-by-mail systems deliver are considerable. Each election cycle finds our local boards of election struggling to find and train enough polling place judges and assistants to operate the polling booths.
The costs for training and the pay for personnel add up and are largely eliminated when ballots are delivered by mail. Moreover, the voting machines have become more expensive to acquire and maintain as the complexities of the systems increase. Having a central counting facility would save scarce tax dollars.
Having discussed these issues with my Republican friends, I am struck by our differences. No matter what aspect of the balloting is being considered, their first response is that we need photo identification for each voter at the polling place.
What’s missing is any evidence of even small-scale voter fraud. Accusations of fraud are rare and prosecutions are rarer yet. There is simply no case for such an expensive and intrusive requirement. But it remains the most important issue for conservatives.
I spend most of my Election Day outside my polling place to provide information to voters who request it. I also observe the process.
There are the elderly who may not know about the drive-up space reserved for them who make their painful way into the building to exercise their right. There is the young mother with an infant and a toddler or two wrestling the carriers and strollers. And there are those who don’t come in, perhaps because they work and can’t get away to cast a ballot.
America has long been the country of progress and innovation. We have a history of looking at how things work and making them better. There is no good reason why we can’t do the same for elections. There are new ideas and technologies to make voting easier and more secure.
In time, we will most certainly be able to vote over the Internet, knowing that sufficient safeguards will ensure that our vote will be accurately counted. Until then there is room for much improvement, and we should explore better ways of making our voices heard.
Jim Heim is chairman of the Moore County Democratic Party. Contact him at email@example.com.
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