A quiet campaign for a return to snail mail is taking hold in virtually all parts of California. The prime campaigners: county voting registrars.These officials feel whipsawed these days, confronted by the federal Help American Vote Act, which requires them to have voting machines that make balloting as easy for disabled voters as for others. Translation: They need a lot of touch screens in place by June or they could be sued or face loss of federal funding, or both.At the same time, both state and federal law require all votes to be recorded on paper, with this state’s rules mandating that voters get a chance to scan the paper record of their choices before leaving the polls.But the most common electronic voting systems – those made by Diebold Election Systems and Election Systems & Software – are both under suspicion as highly corruptible. As of late February, Diebold machines were certified for use only under tight conditions and ES&S machines had no sanction at all in this state.Which brings the registrars to another potential solution: the U.S. mail. Handicapped persons are generally able to use the mail. Popularity of absentee voting – virtually all done by mail – has mushroomed since 1978, when the state lifted a longstanding requirement that an absentee voter certify that he or she was actually going to be absent on Election Day.The en masse absentee vote was at first a tool principally of Republicans, who employed it with great success in the 1982 election that put George Deukmejian in the governor’s office over Democrat Tom Bradley.Democrats eventually caught up, with some labor unions even staging ballot marking parties (no longer supposed to occur) to make sure plenty of “correct” votes were cast.Then, in 2002, along came permanent absentee voting, where voters choosing absentee ballots are now given the option of getting those ballots for future elections without even needing to ask.One result: In a special election last year to fill a vacant Sacramento-area congressional seat, more than half the ballots were cast by mail. That’s nothing compared with Oregon, which now conducts all its state and local elections by mail.Yes, this means ballots get counted more slowly. It can sometimes take a week or more after an election to be sure all ballots mailed in time have arrived and been counted. But mailed-in ballots are done on paper, so they can be recounted easily by hand. They can’t be corrupted by a simple software switch allowing a yes vote to be counted as no, or a vote for candidate A to be given to Mr. or Ms. B.Not that voting by mail is totally corruption-proof. There is still the possibility that employers or unions will informally ask workers to bring in ballots for mass markings. There is still the chance that someone other than the actual voter has marked the ballot. But mailed-in ballots must be signed on the rear of the envelope. To ensure fair elections, registrars need only check a random sampling of those signatures against the handwriting on voter registration cards.And mail-in elections save money. Counties no longer have to rent many polling places. They don’t need to truck or helicopter boxes of ballots to a central counting point. And registrars don’t have to do near book-length paperwork on every polling place they use. So using the mail makes life easier and cheaper for these officials. By a lot.But a mail-only election bucks tradition. Many voters remain accustomed to trudging to the polls, visiting with neighbors while waiting to vote and then marking ballots in a small booth.Take that possibility away and election returns will come in more slowly. Politicians will have fewer chances to stage Election Day photo opportunities at the local polls. Last minute hit-piece advertising campaigns by candidates would be almost pointless, as the bulk of ballots would likely be cast well before the deadline, just as absentees usually are now. These factors, plus fears of corruption or coercion may explain why vote-by-mail has yet to achieve close to the two-thirds legislative majority needed to give it a widespread trial.All of which makes it high time for at least a California trial of mail-only voting. If it works in Oregon – and no one there is complaining – why not here?
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