Voting by mail can result in unintended consequences

Think of long lines of people standing in the rain, voters huddled in cold weather with paper coffee cups in their hands. All of that is so yesterday.

We’re moving away from being a nation of voters who all turn out to vote on one particular day to a nation of voters who wait for a ballot to arrive in the mail, fill it out at home and send it back without ever having to venture out to the polls. All this and on different days, some as far in advance as a month before polls open.

It may not sound like a huge change. Mail-in voting certainly makes it easier on people already struggling to balance work and family life. But it’s actually having an effect not only on how campaigns are run, but also on political polling. Eventually this change in voting patterns could gain sway to the point where it shifts the path of future election results.

Just this June one California county delayed certification of election results after receiving more than 12,000 mail-in ballots the day after the election. The ballots had been forwarded from one post office to another and candidates threatened lawsuits if those ballots were not counted in advance of certifying elections. Both early voting in-person and by mail are available in California.

Having lived through the national debacle of Bush v. Gore in 2000, in which election results were delayed by recounts and court appeals for more than five weeks beyond Election Day, no one wants to repeat that excruciating experience. But mail-in voting raises the possibility that such delays could become commonplace.

It’s already changing the way campaigns are run and TV ads are bought and placed. Stuart Rothenberg of Congressional Quarterly writes: “More than 30 states allow voters to cast their ballots well before Election Day. Early voting begins Oct. 9 in Arizona and Oct. 11 in Illinois. Early voting in Indiana starts 29 days before the Nov. 2 general election. In Wisconsin, it’s three weeks before Election Day. In Florida, early voting starts 15 days before the election.”

Oregon, for example, went to an all-mail-in ballot in 1998, after having toyed with mail-in voting in earlier elections.

Early voting has changed the arc of campaign planning and lowered the value of late campaign developments. Consider the 2008 presidential election. Republican nominee Sen. John McCain came out of his convention in late August some five points ahead of then-Sen. Barack Obama. Wall Street crashed in mid-September and independents deserted the GOP. President Obama won that election handily.

Revelations in California’s gubernatorial race may have changed votes. Republican Meg Whitman was running even with former Gov. Democrat Jerry Brown. Then a former domestic worker went public with information proving Whitman’s husband read a government-issued letter telling the family someone on its domestic staff had issues with her immigration status.

Changes in voting patterns driven by mail-in ballots are also throwing obstacles in the path of veteran poll-watchers. Each individual polling firm can skew poll results by how it handles trends among early balloters.

While early voting is overall a net positive, mail-in balloting may not ultimately be the solution. Perhaps states such as Oregon should change over to the California method, in which most voters go early to the polls to vote and they have more than one day on which to do so.

That would ensure that all votes could be tallied on Election Day, rather than subjecting elections to the vicissitudes of the postal service and delays.

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