Sunday, May 11, 2008
Allow Virginians to vote by mail
- A great community needs great leaders
- A fresh vision for downtown Christiansburg
- The Black House will be an eyesore no more
- Del. Yost wants to clean up Virginia's laws
From the RoundTable blog
Before Tuesday, I had not voted at a polling place since the first time I cast a ballot. Last week, I confronted the voting machine. The experience did not impress.
My electoral exile resulted from a happy string of circumstances. As a senior in high school, I excitedly took advantage of my chance to participate in the democratic process. I stomped through the Cleveland cold to the local elementary school where I voted for president.
The next fall I went off to college. With my home ballot booth hundreds of miles away, absentee ballots were my friend for nearly a decade.
Then I moved to Oregon, the land of vote by mail. The ballot just showed up three weeks before Election Day. A stamp or walk down to the county administration building delivered my vote.
Even in Virginia, I managed to have trips and lots of work scheduled for my first few elections.
On Tuesday, though, I had no excuse. The National Guard Armory in Christiansburg beckoned.
I readied myself for a civic epiphany. Over the years, I have been told I was missing an exciting public ritual that binds a community together.
Like so many myths, the reality fell far short of the hype.
I cruised past a garden of campaign signs and parked between pickup trucks festooned with even more campaign clutter.
Candidates and their surrogates outnumbered voters at the Armory, and, as I walked toward the door, they swarmed. They had all found their rhythm: Shake hands, smile brightly, pass platitude, "Please, vote for me or my candidate." Do people really change their votes between the parking lot and the voting machine just because the wife of a candidate asks?
A handful of people milled about inside the polling place. I approached the M-Z check-in, signed an affirmation of identity -- forgot my photo ID -- and then confronted the WinVote machine.
I chose three candidates for Christiansburg Town Council, pressed the big red vote button that flashed on the touch-screen, and left. I tried not to worry about the low-battery light and lack of a paper trail as my votes disappeared into a digital netherworld.
I ran the candidate gauntlet in reverse, reached the safety of my car and headed to work.
There was no glorious civic engagement, no special sense of pride. All I encountered was a needless hassle that voters could avoid if Virginia permitted them to fill out their ballots at the kitchen table.
I cannot imagine a state so wedded to tradition will embrace vote by mail, a la Oregon, any time soon. People fear the unknown. They worry ballots will be lost in the mail, widespread corruption will taint elections, and communities will lose that mythical civic ceremony.
None of which is true.
Those who do not trust the U.S. Postal Service can drop off their ballot and have their Election Day experience.
Vote by mail is clean, too. Oregon has some of the least corrupt elections in the nation. During the decade that the state has used vote by mail, voter fraud has been all but unheard of. Every voter signs a secrecy envelope that holds her ballot. Election officials compare that signature to the one on file, ensuring the registered voter submitted the ballot.
It also generates a paper trail automatically. No proprietary software could taint the tally undetectably.
Voters have time to study their ballots. They can discuss the candidates and make an informed decision with all of the information before them, not a rushed one with people waiting behind them to use the voting machine.
And the convenience encourages participation. Oregon has some of the highest voter turnouts in the nation.
Despite the advantages, many people cling passionately to the old ways.
Virginia could enable their addiction to the polling place and still allow modern voters to skip the booth.
About half of the states allow no-fault absentee voting. If voters want to vote at the ballot box, they show up on Election Day. If they prefer the convenience and security of voting by mail, they request an absentee ballot, no explanation required.
Virginia now demands that absentee voters provide a reason. Unless they will be out of town all day or otherwise indisposed, absentee voting is not an option.
It would take some action by the General Assembly next year, but in a state where barely half of registered voters showed up for the last congressional election, it is time to make voting more convenient.
Trejbal is an editorial writer for The Roanoke Times based in the New River Valley bureau in Christiansburg.