EXPERIENCE WITH VOTE BY MAIL
Most of the documents and studies obtained from many sources by this committee indicate that voter participation is greater when VBM is used. As far back as 1984 a study of VBM elections in seven cities, large and small, in the states of California, Oregon and Washington showed that six of the cities had impressive voting rates for special elections.
The 1996 report by the Arizona Vote-By-Mail Study Committee states:
"In many jurisdictions in other states which held vote-by-mail elections, voter turnout increased; e. g., in Colorado, turnout doubled or tripled in local elections; Thurston County, WA experienced a 152% increase over similar jurisdictions with polling place voting." It also states:
"Voter turnout changes in absentee/early voting should not be used as an indicator of results to be experienced from conducting elections by mail, because absentee/early voting does not appear to improve turnout. It is simply a more convenient form of voting for those who would vote anyway." [More about "early voting" below.]
In regard to voter turnout in the decade from 1983 to 1993, the July 1997 report by the Washington State Association of Auditors states that:
"Over the next decade, several dozen vote-by mail elections were conducted. They consistently experienced a remarkable tripling of voter turnout, reduced costs, and citizens who 'loved it' compared to traditional pollsite elections."
The records from the trial period of VBM for all elections in 1994 and 1995, in which a large number of counties opted to use VBM, show comparable results. The auditors' report also states "....the record of significantly increased participation, voter enthusiasm, and lowered costs continued.4
Since Washington State gave counties the option to either hold elections by mail or at polling sites, it was easy to compare the voter turnout for the stadium election. The statistics show that 59% of the eligible mail voters participated while only 34% of eligible poll site voters participated. The latter figure includes the most populated county, King, where the stadium is to be built.4
Not all VBM elections have had increased voter turnout. The two most populous counties in Nevada, Clark and Washoe, held their Republican Presidential Preference Primaries using VBM and actually had a small decrease in the number of voters.2, 9 We will examine some of the problems they had later on in this study.
Some studies suggest that since VBM takes place over a period of several days, the media and campaigners can play an important role in reminding people to send in their ballots and explaining how to fill them out. If a person does not vote right away, the ballot may be put in the "to do" file and forgotten.
Who Likes Vote By Mail and Who Doesn't
The results of polls taken in various areas that have held VBM elections show that a majority of the people like to vote by mail. In one survey conducted in 1996 in Oregon, an overwhelming 76.5 percent of those polled (who also voted in the election) said they favored VBM. Only 15 percent preferred going to a polling site and 8.1 percent felt it didn't matter.]10 The Traugott and Mason Study11 of 1,483 citizens also taken in Oregon after the January 1996 special VBM election for U.S. Senator, shows that:
"Of those questioned, 55% preferred voting by mail; 28% had no preference; and 17% preferred going to the polls. Asked what they would like to see in future elections, 61% prefer voting by mail; 23% have no preference; and 15% prefer going to the polls. Most, 79% said voting by mail is more convenient."11
In the 1997 Washington State report on the stadium election, as was stated earlier, not all counties chose to use VBM. It is interesting to note that even in poll site counties, 41% voted by mail using absentee ballots. In one rural county the figure was 62%.4
The report goes on to say:
"What is more important, in the opinion of many County Auditors and knowledgeable observers, is that use of the vote-by-mail process in the primary and general elections evidences a significant gain in informed voting. Voters reported and observers noted that mail voting provided citizens the time and opportunity to become much better informed about issues and candidacies before casting a ballot. Overall, it appears that mail voting fits more into the life style of late twentieth century Washingtonians than poll site voting."
As stated earlier, the Washington State legislature did not agree. After the two year-trial period, the auditors' report says
"A small, but vociferous opposition surfaced and expressed concerns about potential for fraud, about the possibility of undue influence by individuals or organizations over voting, about the competence of the U.S. Post Office to deal with ballots, and about the loss of the ceremonial aspects of voting. Some negativity was simply resistance to change, but many thoughtful citizens shared the Spokesman-Review's concern about "social disconnectedness." As a result, the 1997 Legislature did not consider expanding vote-by-mail."4
In the previously cited study done by the Office of the Secretary of State of Arizona,1 some comments were included by the Republican, Democratic and Libertarian parties on the subject of VBM. Unlike the surveys cited above, the parties' view of VBM was fairly negative.
Both the Democratic and the Republican parties mentioned that going to the polling site was a tradition that we should not give up lightly.
The Libertarian party said that it "...believes, in general, that the reason for poor voter turnout in elections has nothing to do with the election process itself. The source of voters' apathy, rather, lies in their perceived inability to effect change through the voting process."
That sentiment was evident in many first time voter registrants in Kailua-Kona during the 1998 Wiki Wiki voter registration drive. Many people volunteered that they had never bothered to vote before because they did not think it would make any difference or they had never cared.
In an article in the Sunday Oregonian newspaper of March 16,1997,12 the author states:
"Initially Democrats opposed vote-by-mail. Now-they support it.
"Republicans liked the idea. Now they've largely taken a cooler stance.
"The reason for the flip-flopping comes down to changing perceptions on which party benefits... .and which is hurt.
"'Controlling who votes is fundamental in politics,' said James D. Moore, a professor of political science at the University of Portland.
"Every change made to election rules alters to some degree, the voting population, he says. By extension, winners and losers become less predictable, until, of course, campaigns come to understand what it takes to control the newest voters.
"'That's why, throughout our country's history,' Moore says 'blood has been shed' over extending the vote --to women, to blacks, to 18 year-olds and to the poor.
"And while vote-by-mail does not explicitly include or exclude certain voters, it potentially changes the mix."
When this writer asked the President of the League of Women Voters of Oregon, Paula Krane, whether the initiative measure to hold all elections by mail had much opposition, she said only from the national political parties. "The state parties don't dare openly oppose it because the people want it."
However, the Registrars of Clark and Washoe Counties, Nevada found that the VBM elections of the Republican Preferential Primaries had many flaws. In Clark County it seems that many voters did not understand the mechanics, of VBM. As an example, many ballots could not be counted because the voters did not sign the outer envelope. A privacy sleeve was provided for the ballot but many voters did not use it. Also, ballots were returned after the deadline. Many people overvoted -- that is, they voted for more than one candidate when only one could be chosen. Some were left blank. Of course, that may have been intentional. There were 162,201 registered Republicans in the county and 75,767 (46.7%) voted. Altogether, 3,779 returned ballots were not counted. There were 75,572 ballots counted, but 19,825 were returned by the Post Office as undeliverable. Voters did not return approximately 55,000 ballots.8, 9
Las Vegas is situated in Clark County and Reno in Washoe County. Both counties have extremely large numbers of short-time residents, which can be a problem when it comes to VBM.
The Vote By Mail study by Arizona1 delineates the good and bad points of VBM especially as it pertains to Arizona. It neither supports nor opposes VBM for technical reasons. It recommends some expansion of the use of VBM in some small jurisdictions. It also recommends enacting a provision permitting permanent absentee/early ballot requests. But, it does end its report by saying:
"The ability to vote at a neighborhood polling place is a long-held tradition in American democracy. The committee does not foresee the ultimate expansion in Arizona of mail-in balloting to state-wide and Federal primary and general elections."
After the good results (in the opinion of most critics) of the VBM U.S. Senatorial race in January of 1996 in Oregon, the statewide primary race in May was held as a traditional polling site election. This was after the governor had vetoed the bill to hold all elections by mail. An editorial in the Eugene Register Guard newspaper13 has some biting comments about the election.
"In what Secretary of State Phil Keisling called the worst of two worlds, Tuesday's primary was both a polling-place and a vote-by-mail election. While the primary cannot by law be conducted by mail, much of it was anyway because of the huge numbers voting by absentee ballot.
"Keisling, who is the state's chief elections officer and a big fan of vote-by-mail, said that Tuesday's election 'set a record for all the worst reasons.' He specifically cited the unusually low turnout -- a product of several factors, including a rather boring election and a heavy rain -- and the election's $3 million-plus estimated cost. The cost exceeded normal primary expenses because of the need for conducting parallel mail and polling place elections.
"'I hope this election puts an exclamation point to the end of the debate on vote-by mail,' Keisling said." But, of course it didn't.
Cost of Vote By Mail
The Secretary of State of Oregon has said that when a jurisdiction conducts elections that have both polling sites and large numbers of absentee ballots, the cost escalates. The state or jurisdiction has to have in place the mechanism to handle both methods of voting.
According to the 1996 Arizona study':
"It has been demonstrated in other states that election costs, which are mostly borne by the counties or other local jurisdictions, are reduced when only vote by mail is used because there is no need to hire poll workers, rent polling places, or hire other extra workers to transport ballots, etc. However, additional staff must be hired to process the mailing and to verify the signatures on the returned ballot envelopes.
"There is no quantified estimate of the size of cost savings which largely accrue to the counties or local jurisdictions. There are various reports of savings, e.g.: $.50 per voter; 10 percent; costs reduced from $275,000 to $235,000. Oregon reports that medium-sized jurisdictions have the greatest cost savings. Large and small jurisdictions report no cost savings."
However, in the publication Oregon's Vote-By-Mail Elections, the Secretary of State says that Oregon tax payers were saved an estimated one million dollars total for the primary and general special elections in 1996. Oregon, at that time, had 1,811,231 eligible voters.14
The Washington State Auditors report4, says that VBM was "also a success with respect to cost per ballot cast." One very good comparison was made by the Clallam County Auditor, who reported that:
"... he (the auditor) conducted the '96 presidential primary at poll sites and the stadium election by mail. Both were special elections with single vote measures and-were held during the spring. The presidential primary cost Clallam County $77,000.00 whereas the stadium election cost $51,000.00. That's a 34% reduction in cost."
Almost all the studies show cost savings for most VBM elections in most jurisdictions. A major exception was Clark County, Nevada, which spent over $100,000 more in the Republican Presidential Primary conducted by mail than it did in the previous Republican Presidential Primary conducted in the traditional manner.8 Election official Kathryn Ferguson, said that the cost of new election machines that were not used had to be pro-rated into the primary costs.
In the Arizona study,' the Libertarian Party had some interesting views on election costs.
"Any changes in the election process need to be made, not for cost savings, but for the primary purpose of increasing voter participation. And, "Cost savings should not be a concern in this discussion."
Since new methods of scanning signatures have become available since some of these studies were made, and since some jurisdictions may not have made use of the latest equipment for signature scanning and preparing bulk mailings, we cannot be sure if all costs are comparable.
There has been debate about whether the government should furnish a stamped envelope for the return ballot. This would greatly increase the cost of VBM. Some think that causing the voter to pay postage might be a form of poll tax, which would be unconstitutional. However, if dropoff sites are provided, as they are in most VBM elections, then voters do not have to mail in their ballots. Some citizens prefer to use the dropoff site because they do not trust the mail.
An interesting fact came to light when a survey15 was taken in Oregon in 1996 to see if there was any correlation between voting and having postage stamps in the home. Oregonians have to pay the postage to return their ballots, so participants were asked if they had postage stamps in the house at the time of the survey. Then a comparison was made correlating possession of stamps with whether the respondents were registered to vote and voted.
Eighty three percent of the sample said they had postage stamps in the house, and of those 91% were registered and 76% voted. Only 67% percent were registered and 47% voted of those that did not have stamps in the house.
The survey also showed that respondents who usually paid their bills by mail or electronic banking were about 10 percentage points more likely to be registered and vote than those who dropped their bill payments off.
Ballot Secrecy and Voter Intimidation
When voting by mail or voting absentee, there is no problem in guaranteeing the secrecy of the ballot after it arrives at the counting center or elections office. The voter puts the ballot in a "secrecy" envelope that contains no identification of the voter. Then the secrecy envelope is put into an outer envelope which the voter must sign. That signature is then compared to the signature that appears on the voter registration form. After verification, the privacy envelope containing the ballot is removed from the outer envelope, and then opened in a separate process. Once the privacy envelope is separated from the outer envelope, there is no way to reestablish which ballot goes with which name.
In order to speed up the process, many jurisdictions, including Hawaii, are now using scanning machines that can call up the name. The latest innovation, which was used in Hawaii in 1998, is a bar code on the outer envelope, like the grocery stores use. The scanner automatically picks out the correct name for comparison without any entry being made by the person doing the scanning. Not only does this method save many hours of hand labor, but it verifies that the correct person has signed the envelope.
When a person votes in a polling site, secrecy is guaranteed. Even if you promised your mate, your friend who is running for office, your boss or your shop steward that you would vote a certain way, once you are alone in the polling booth you can vote as you wish. No one is able to look over your shoulder to see how you voted. The secrecy of how one votes is not guaranteed when voting by mail.
In a study presented in 1984, David B. Magleby states2
"It is not surprising, given the unusual nature of mail ballot elections, that they would be challenged constitutionally. The central legal issue is whether mail ballots are secret ballots, which most states constitutionally prescribe In August 1983 the California Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of mail ballot elections. Justice Broussard said:2
"The fundamental importance of the right to vote persuades us that reasonable efforts by the Legislature to facilitate and increase its exercise must be upheld."
The court also said:
"Mail ballot elections serve two purposes as compared to voting-booth elections. First, voting by mail is _often more convenient than voting at the polling place and mail voting increases voter participation. Second, mail balloting can provide significant economies in the administration of elections permitting agencies to call special elections with relatively little cost to ascertain voter sentiment on pending issues. (Peterson v. San Diego, 1983, p. 533).2
The use of absentee ballots is subject to the same lack of secrecy as mail ballots. Another case cited in the above study states:
"In a 1981 city council race in Sanger (Fresno County) three Hispanic candidates defeated three incumbents partly because of an unusually high absentee vote. One of the incumbents, Anne Beatie, challenged the election, claiming that campaign workers had watched voters mark ballots, and that this violated the secrecy requirement. In Beatie v. Davila the California Supreme Court disagreed:
'If a voter wishes to disclose his marked ballot to someone else, be it a family member, friend or a candidate's representative, he should be permitted to do so. To hold otherwise would cast a pall on absentee voting... We suspect that many absentee voters disclose their marked ballots to other persons before placing them in the identification envelope for return to the elections official or polling place. Such a voluntary disclosure cannot be deemed to violate the constitutional mandate. (Beatie v. Davila, 1982, p. 431).'2
Oregon Representative Lynn Snodgrass who is the House majority leader and chair of the House Committee on Rules and Elections has this to say about ballot secrecy:16
"...while proponents will tell you that little or no fraud exists because of little or no reports of fraud, I submit to you that, in fact, it does exist and that the reporting process is not being used.
"What family member would turn in another for tampering in any way with the voting decision? What mother would turn in a daughter for punching a hole marked "yes" when mom wanted to vote "no"? What dad will turn in his wife for not allowing him to privately vote?
"I find it rather absurd that in a society that is finally becoming more sensitive to domestic violence, we would so quickly brush aside the issue of "domestic coercion" simply because it is not being reported.
"Finally, the matter of "group voting" is another example of potential intimidation that mandatory vote by mail can facilitate. Requests to bring your ballots to the church, the union hall, the senior luncheon or the college dorm lounge, so that individuals can "vote as a unified group," or "get questions answered" are potentially unethical and intimidating situations,"
According to Kathryn Ferguson, the Clark County, Nevada, Registrar of Voters, it is quite common for applicants for absentee ballots to request that they be mailed to their union hall. This is not illegal since the signatures were in order and evidently there have been no formal complaints of coercion.
Ms. Ferguson also said that one woman recounted that her husband had told her how to vote. She voted in a polling booth so voted as she wished, but she told her husband she had voted as he directed.
Another study done in 1984 by Professor of Sociology Robert Mason found that there was a "suggested case of fraud." In a sample of 1,429 registered voters in Oregon, one woman's husband reportedly opened her ballot, marked it, signed her name and sealed her envelope, all without her knowledge.17 The study does not say if the woman reported her husband.
Surveys taken after the statewide balloting in the 1996 Senatorial race in Oregon show that there were a few cases where people felt pressured to vote a certain way. One person said his/her vote was changed because of that pressure.1
Another report on the same election by professors Trougott and Mason12 states that 96% of ballots were marked at home. Half of those that were done elsewhere were done at work. The report continues:
"Two thirds of the respondents indicated that they were alone when they voted, and 30% indicated that someone else was present. Among the latter group, 61% indicated that they discussed the way they were voting with that other person. Virtually all of these respondents (98%) said that this discussion did not make them feel uncomfortable or under any pressure, but four respondents said it did. While almost all of the respondents (97%) indicated that they would have voted the same way if they were alone, four indicated that they would have voted differently if they had been alone."
The report goes on to address the concern about "ballot parties" as follows:
"While much was made in the pre-election media of the danger of "ballot parties," only three respondents indicated that they attended such a meeting, and fifteen more said they had been asked to attend one but did not. Two of the three who attended such a party indicated they received a suggestion about how to vote, and one person actually cast their ballot while they were there. No one assisted any of these respondents in marking their ballots while they were there, and none of their ballots was collected at such an event."12
The same fears were discussed several years ago when the use of absentee ballots was liberalized by many states. As some readers may recall, at one time there were very strict rules for voting absentee. Now, in Hawaii, a person does not have to give a reason for voting absentee; just request the ballot. Many people feared that groups, such as those named above, would hold some sort of function and invite or request members to attend. If it were to happen, it might be awkward socially or downright detrimental to one's employment not to attend. There were stories of this happening in California.
According to the previously cited study by the League of Women Voters of Oregon, "ballot parties" are illegal (a felony) in Oregon and such activity can be reported to the Elections Division." A church can lose its tax exempt status for such activity.
Who Votes By Mail?
This subject seems to be of utmost importance to incumbent office holders when any change is proposed in voting procedure. As we have seen earlier in this study, the, party, in power usually likes the status quo. There has been speculation that VBM would encourage a different type of voter, thereby adding a new dimension to election outcomes. But do the demographics really change that much with VBM, and if so, how? If the demographics show a change in one special election for Senator in Oregon, can these results be extrapolated to future elections? Should the politicians even be worrying about this?
In the preliminary report of a survey done by Priscilla Southwell,10 previously cited, "slight" differences were shown between those who voted by mail and those who traditionally voted at the polls or who were nonvoters. The survey covered the race for the U.S. Senate that was held when the incumbent Republican Senator, Bob Packwood, was forced to resign due to charges of sexual misconduct. The mail voter was slightly
- "more likely to be a member of a minority race;
- more likely to be a single parent;
- more likely to be registered as an-independent;
- more likely to have moved in the past two years;
- more likely to identify their work status as "keeping house;"
- more likely to be paid by the hour rather than on salary or commission;
- more likely to pay "a great deal of attention" to political events in Oregon;
- less likely to identify themselves as "middle of the road" in ideological terms;
- very similar to traditional voters in their vote for Senator in this election;
- similar to traditional voters in caring about the outcome of the election and much more concerned than are nonvoters; and,
- slightly less educated and informed than traditional voters but much more educated and informed than nonvoters."10
According to the study by professors Traugott and Mason, the survey suggests that more women than men voted in this election, but there were no gender differences in reported registration and voting rates. Also, respondents who were newly arrived in the state are less likely to be registered and 'somewhat less likely to vote than those who have resided in Oregon for a longer period.16
But the Southwell preliminary report showed that people who had moved within the last two years voted significantly more by mail. These data are not necessarily in conflict. Percentage-wise, fewer new residents register and vote, but of those who did, more voted by mail. The report did not say whether these figures included only moves within the state, or moves from out of state, or both. This part of the report is titled, "Length of Residence -- Moved Within the Last Two Years."10
Southwell ends her report by saying:
"Vote-by-mail is an electoral method that has attracted a great deal of national attention. Aside from the obvious effect on voter turnout and cost reduction, this survey suggests that the consequences of vote-by-mail are far less dramatic and earthshattering than has been suggested previously."10
The previously cited Magleby study2, which was done in 1984, stated:
"Based upon these aggregate comparisons in Berkeley, San Diego, and Vancouver, it is apparent that voting districts with low rates of participation in polling place elections are also low in participation in mail ballot elections. Similarly, parts of the city where citizens vote in large numbers in traditional elections are the parts of the city with the highest rates of response in mail ballot elections."
The Magleby report, which dealt with special-issue elections in various cities and towns, does not agree in many ways with the recent elections of Oregon and Washington. In general, his study found that older people vote more in mail elections, as do people with more education. He thinks that people with less education may have a harder time understanding and following the instructions for mail voting. Younger people do not have as much at stake as older people, especially since so many of the studied mail elections have been about taxes --usually property taxes.
Campaign strategists are concerned that when people vote at home, some vote early, some wait a few days, and others wait until the last minute to send in or drop off their ballots. Any such variable is worrisome to those conducting a campaign.
In 1993, it was found that in two densely populated counties in Colorado,5 the heaviest balloting was done either soon after receiving ballots, or the weekend before the election. In a 1995 election in one of the same counties, it was determined that older voters and those with a long history of partisanship were more likely to mail their ballots in early, even though the election was non-partisan. Unaffiliated or younger partisans tended to mail their ballots later.
This type of information means that those who run campaigns may have to change how and when money is spent to target certain categories of voters. Campaigners, especially party workers in Colorado and Oregon, found that it pays to explain how the ballot works and to encourage voters to mail in their ballots."5, 18
In the newspaper, The Oregonian of March 23, 1997, Professor Moore said,
"Three separate studies -- by the University of Michigan, Brigham Young University and the University of Oregon, concluded independently that mail voting had no impact on the outcome of elections. Neither major party appeared to gain an advantage, because the additional voters resembled traditional voters in attitudes and how they cast their ballots."19
As we have seen, throughout our country's history the right to vote has been grudgingly extended. First, only white male property owners could vote. Then African American males could (try to) vote. Later, women could vote; then Native Americans; and lastly, eighteen year-olds.
The strange thing is that after all these groups obtained the right to vote, participation rates actually declined.20 Was it a case of forbidden fruit? Or, perhaps we don't value that which comes too easily. Or maybe the Libertarians are correct in saying that many people do not believe that voting makes any difference in their lives.,
Voter Registration And Fraud
Whatever the reasons may be for the decline in the rate of voting in recent years, the efforts to increase participation focused on making registering to vote easier and more accessible.
There was good reason for some liberalization of registration rules, especially in areas of the country where barriers had been placed to make it difficult for some citizens to become eligible voters. Another reason to make registering to vote easier, is that Americans are on the move constantly. We change residences in our towns, states and across the nation. About one third of our population moves every two years. It used to be that someone might have to wait a year to vote after moving to a new area, but now a new resident can register and vote in days. Some states even have, or have had, same-day registration.
Oregon established same-day registration in the seventies despite much fear, in some circles, that Californians would come rushing over the border and vote illegally in nearby communities. What actually happened was that a cult known as the Rajneeshies (who may have been from California) settled in a sparsely populated area of central Oregon. They intended to resettle large numbers of homeless people on their property, and thereby take over the local government.20 The plan was thwarted and Oregon no longer allows same-day registration. Same-day registration is not possible with VBM elections.
The Federal National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) directs states to liberalize laws that control registration in Federal elections. The effect of this act has forced changes at all levels for states like Hawaii which has uniform statewide registration.
The Federal Election Commission has published a kind of guide21 for implementing the NVRA, but the preface of the tome states that it is intended only as a general reference tool. It advises that any laws or decisions the state might make should be made "...only after consultation with your state legal authority." It also says:
"It is very important to note, however, that the Federal Election Commission does not have the legal authority either to interpret the Act or to determine whether this or that procedure meets the requirements of the Act. Indeed, the civil enforcement of the Act is specifically assigned to the Department of Justice."
This must cause a great deal of consternation for elections officials and lawmakers as they try to "get it right". It seems that they must wait to see if anyone complains and then await a legal opinion. Then it could mean going to court. The purpose of the Act is clear however; to make it easier to register and vote, and to make it more difficult for people who do register to be dropped from voter rolls.
To this end, states are mandated to make registration available at all state offices that provide state-funded programs primarily engaged in providing services to persons with disabilities. It is suggested that libraries, schools, and all sorts of licensing bureaus also make registration available. Hawaii also provides registration forms in phone books, post offices and on line.
Identification is not needed. The applicant must affirm with a signature that he/she is telling the truth. In Hawaii the voter registration form is printed with the warning that it is a Class C Felony to knowingly falsify information. The signature affirms that the applicant is a resident of the state, is an American citizen and is, or will be, eighteen years old at the time of the election. Hawaii requires applicants to give their Social Security numbers when registering. It is forbidden under Section 7 of the Federal Privacy Act to use Social Security information for other than government purposes.
If a person gives a Post Office box number as an address, a geographical address must also be given, such as a street address or tax key number. This is so the applicant can be assigned a voting precinct and district.
During the Wiki Wiki Voter Registration drive in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, it was found that many new registrants of Hawaii County did not know their street name or number. People who live in rural areas often have no street, let alone a street number. Some had difficulty describing where they lived. But with the aid of a book of streets, roads and landmarks, registrars were able to track down where people lived.
If the applicant's birthplace is not in the U.S., the county clerk's office will check with the Office of Immigration and Naturalization to make sure the applicant is a citizen. But it is not the role of deputy (volunteer) registrars to question whether a person is a citizen. It can be pointed out that the person registering to vote is swearing that the information is factual.
There is a provision in the NVRA that if a person registers by mail, a state may require that the first time the person votes, it must be in person. If a state adopted VBM, a first time voter would not be able to vote at the polls. States like Oregon that use VBM have no such requirement.
Purging the Rolls -- New Rules
The most important change that the NVRA has brought forth pertains to purging voter registration rolls of people who fail to vote. In past years Hawaii has dropped from the rolls names of people who did not vote in either the primary or general election. The NVRA does not allow persons to be dropped from the rolls for failure to vote only.21
In Hawaii the County Clerks send out a Voter Registration and Address Confirmation card to each registered voter before Primary elections to verify information. By law, these cards are not forwardable. If a card comes back as undeliverable, the elections office can check with the Post Office for a forwarding address. If the person is still a resident, the card can be sent to the new address and the person will be asked to update the information. If a person does not respond to the address confirmation card the name will be "flagged" as questionable. If a person has not voted in two Federal selection cycles and has not responded to the card, the elections office can then assume that the voter has moved from the jurisdiction, and remove the name from the active voter list.
Through the National Change of Address (NCOA) system, a computerized system available to licensees with the Post Office, states or other jurisdictions can continually update changes of address on their voter rolls. This service must be paid for by the jurisdiction keeping the rolls, which, in Hawaii, is the counties.
But even if a person fails to respond to any of these notices, the individual is given the benefit of the doubt. Possibly the notices, for some unknown reason, were not delivered to the person. In Hawaii, if a person who has moved and did not respond to the verification cards shows up at the polls on election day, he/she will be permitted to vote at the new address when certain requirements are met. (See below)
The reasoning behind all this is that voting, like freedom of speech, is a right, not an obligation. If, for whatever reason, a person chooses not to vote, that person should not be penalized by being purged from the voter rolls. It was also felt by some, especially civil rights leaders, that the old method of purging voter rolls disenfranchised minorities and the poor more than any other class of voter."
Because names are only actually purged because the person has so requested, died, or registered to vote in another state, there is a lot more "deadwood" on the voter rolls now. The Clark County, Nevada, Registrar of Voters said that because of the NVRA rules, they now have about 80,000 inactive voters on the rolls. Of these, only 449 voted in the last election.
A survey of Secretaries of State completed by all but seven states showed that in the Federal General Election of 1996, a smaller number of people actually voted than in 1992. This was so even though a greater number of people was registered to vote in 1996. The total number of people voting in the Presidential election of 1992 was, 97,451,117. In 1996, also a Presidential election, the total was 90,101,341. The percentage of registered voters who voted in 1992 was 77.28; in 1996, the percentage was 64.69.22
The experience of only two Presidential elections may not be enough for us to fairly judge whether the NVRA is producing the desired results of increasing voter turnout. If it is proven to be ineffective, and at the same time adds to the task of keeping accurate voting rolls, some parts of the NVRA may need an overhaul.
The cost of mailing the verification notices plus follow-ups has risen, as has the job of doing all the paperwork. However, the NVRA does mandate that the Postal Service make available to states and localities the same postal rate as for qualified non-profit organizations. Unfortunately, this rate is not first class.
Partly because of the NVRA, and partly because many states had already taken the initiative to make sure their voter registration lists are up to date, many states and jurisdictions have modernized their record keeping. Hawaii notifies other states, and is notified in return, when voters register from out of state. Our county clerks exchange information through our centralized state system. If a person registers twice, even if it is in another county, that information is available to all the county clerks because of our centralized data bank.
The Offices of the County Clerks must, and do, communicate with the various agencies to find out about felony convictions, releases from prison, deaths, and persons who have been declared mentally incompetent. The Federal Courts send a notice of Federal felony convictions to Hawaii's Elections Office.
Because Hawaii usually holds elections only every two years, it is almost certain that a large number of people will have moved in that time. Many people do not feel the need to register the change of address until right before the election. In fact quite a few forget about it entirely. In Honolulu City and County when the voter notification cards were sent out in June, 1998, approximately 10% (about 40,000 cards) were returned by the Post Office. About 25% of the population of Honolulu moves every year. The Chief Elections Officer of the State of Hawaii, Dwayne Yoshina, says that the state, as a whole, averages about a 10% undeliverable rate.
In Washoe County Nevada, only sixty days after completing a National Change of Address process in coordination with the U. S. Postal Service, about 6% of ballots were returned as undeliverable."
The inability to purge registration rolls and to affirm voters' addresses worries many election officials and ordinary citizens.
In Clark County, Nevada, VBM Republican Primary, nearly 10% of the ballots were undeliverable. As to whether there was any indication of fraudulent voting, the Clark County Voter Registrar had this to say:8
"There were no indications of fraudulent voting. However, ballots were delivered all over the County to former residents who did not fill out a change of address with the post office when they vacated their address of record: new residents automatically received the old residents' ballots. In addition, most of the people voting early and in the office on election day did so because they never received their ballots in the mail. Many of these voters' addresses were correct: the post office simply failed to properly deliver the ballot. To whom were these ballots delivered? In numerous instances, some members of a household received their ballots while other members did not."
The Registrar went on to say that they were still receiving (late) ballots. She also told how hard it was to validate all the signatures to detect fraud. She adds that these problems may not be a factor in Nevada's smaller, more stable voting populations, but it certainly was in "...Clark County with its burgeoning transient population and a history of voting problems." The report did not say what the voting problems were.
The report from the Office of the Registrar in Washoe County, Nevada, says
"The integrity of the entire election process is profoundly challenged by the conduct of mail-in registration in conjunction with all mail elections." and, "...a significant percent of the applications received had incorrect information, e.g., wrong birth date, misspelled last name,, etc. Our system's duplicate analysis cannot find duplicates when erroneous information is provided. Consequently, such applications are classified as new and a single voter could have multiple registrations in the system .... A fail-safe method of dealing with these types of problems would be imperative if there were any future all mail elections."9
Even in Oregon, the Traugott and Mason" survey of the 1996 Senatorial race shows that:
"...2% of respondents reported they or someone in their household received more than one ballot, and one in twenty respondents (5%) indicated that a ballot came to their household addressed to someone who does not currently live there. The accuracy of mailing lists is inversely related to the leniency in purging procedures that permit people to remain eligible to vote even after a period in which they have not voted (for any number of reasons)."
The importance of keeping accurate voter rolls and checking them for all types of elections was underscored in March, 1998, when the election of the mayor of Miami was ruled invalid by a judge due to voter fraud. In this case the fraud was found to occur mainly in the absentee balloting. People signed for absentee ballots fraudulently. Even the dead were voting.
In the case of the mayor's race in Florida, the judge threw out 5,000 absentee ballots. The decision was upheld by the Third District Court of Appeal in March, 1998. The loser said he would appeal to the state Supreme Court."23
A detailed article from the February 8, 1998, Miami Herald newspaper24 tells how the vote fraud there was carried out. Some of the examples are:
Campaign workers asked voters to sign the ballots and then hand them over. The campaign workers then voted them. Since Florida also requires the signature of a witness, the campaign workers signed many ballots as witness. Some had the same name at the same address voting more than once. This was illustrated by photos of three signatures supposedly made by someone named Maria Gomez, all at the same address. These signatures were obviously different.
Voter registration cards were taken from people living in one district and switched to make it appear they lived in another. Some absentee ballots were sent to homes where the "requesters" no longer lived. The ballots were then picked up by a third party, voted, fraudulently signed and sent back to the election center and counted.
There were other methods employed in the fraud. It was apparent that the fraud was so wide spread that it must have been organized at some level. Some of the campaign workers who were involved in the fraud were hired as city workers after the election.
In the article "Votes For Sale" in the Reader's Digest,25 the authors tell about cases of voting fraud in many states. Some of the fraud can occur at the polls where people have been paid to vote a certain way. For this type of fraud to work, poll workers and other officials have to be involved, which means the whole political process is corrupt.
Most of the cases of fraud occur in absentee balloting. The inability of jurisdictions to keep accurate voter rolls and check signatures is the worst problem. People have gone to the polls to vote and been told that they had already voted absentee, There have been incidents where someone visited nursing homes to "assist" incapacitated patients, even those with severe Alzheimer's disease, to vote absentee.
The article says that the NVRA is making the situation worse and that Congress should repeal the Motor Voter Act or amend it to allow more frequent pruning of the registration rolls. It calls for states to intensify efforts to verify voters' identities and to tighten the lax standards for absentee ballots.
The ability of the public and the media to have unlimited access to voter names and addresses as a deterrent to fraud was addressed in a recent editorial in the Honolulu Advertiser. The editorial cited various instances of vote fraud in Hawaii and other areas that were brought to light because citizens found discrepancies between voters names and addresses. The editorial was prompted by a recently passed Hawaii law to withhold registrants' addresses from public access.26
Under the part titled, "Public Disclosure of Voter Registration Activities", (Sec. 8) the NVRA says:21
- "Each State shall maintain for at least 2 years and shall make available for public inspection and, where available, photocopying at a reasonable cost, all records concerning the implementation of programs and activities conducted for the purpose of ensuring the accuracy and currency of official lists of eligible voters,....
- "The records maintained pursuant to paragraph (1) shall include lists of the names and addresses of all persons to whom notices... are sent...."
The purpose of open voting lists was to prevent fraud, but there are some people who may feel the need to withdraw from voting because they may be in danger if someone finds out their address. The Federal Election Commission Guide lists some categories of citizens who might be in jeopardy if their addresses were made public, such as:.... "law enforcement Officers, abused spouses, stalker victims, public personalities and the like."21 How can such be protected under the law without letting others, also claiming the right to privacy, remove their Addresses from the rolls? (See Appendix far Hawaii, Election Officials' comments)
According to the accompanying news article in the Honolulu Advertiser,27 the Hawaii law: "... allows voters to keep their addresses and phone numbers confidential if they claim that they or their families would be threatened or that they would be subjected to 'an unwarranted invasion of privacy.' These voters must cast absentee ballots."
Another problem is the use of Social Security numbers, in Hawaii and other states. In the age of computers, giving public access to SS numbers is extremely unwise. Some people refuse to register when they find this requirement on our forms. Of course, the same problems are possible with the use of SS numbers on drivers' licenses. Social Security numbers and addresses are no longer included on voter lists available to the public in Hawaii. The only information now available to the public is name, district and precinct and whether the person is on active or inactive voting status.
The March 4 edition of Election Administration Reports28 tells of an innovative method used by the state of Kentucky to purge its voter rolls. The report says
"All states are currently connected, through a computer system so that information available to one state may be available to all. When drivers move from one state to another, and seek a driver's license in the new State, this action usually cancels the driver's license held in the former State of residence.
"Kentucky has a statewide voter registry. The State Election Board obtained a computerized list of all driver's licenses that had been canceled by former Kentucky residents over the past 12 months. A cross-check revealed that of the 40,448 former Kentucky driver's license holders, 16,540 were listed on the Kentucky rolls as registered voters.
"The names of these registered voters were deleted from the rolls because they had signed a statement in another State claiming residence there and no longer could claim the right to vote in Kentucky."
In Hawaii, election officials do compare voters to drivers' licenses, but not everyone has a license, especially elderly people. The City and County of Honolulu has begun to use the signature from drivers' licenses as the official signature for voting purposes because the person has to appear in person to apply for a driver's license. Honolulu County also uses a computerized system to check each registrant's address with the building department to see if an address really exists. This system has already found irregularities in addresses, including some "mail drop" addresses, (that is, businesses that receive mail for customers). These are not legal addresses. Neighbor Island counties do not have the above capabilities.
The report by the Washington State County Auditors4 contains a quote from another study done by Anderson, Keegan and Shaklee which concluded:
"All-mail ballot elections are more secure from fraud than poll-site elections because verifying signatures on mailed-in ballots is a certainty, while verifying signatures at poll sites is no longer allowed since the passage of the National voter Registration Act of 1993."
Although election officials in others states believe that identification is not required and should not be requested, Hawaii requires a picture identification when voting at a polling site. If the voter forgets to bring an I.D., the voter must give vital statistics to prove identity. And if a registered voter shows up at the polls and his/her name in the poll book has been "flagged" because of a questionable address, the person will still be allowed to vote. But the would-be voter is required to complete a Registration Affidavit and affirm that the information is correct, before voting is allowed. This process is time consuming and may result in redirecting a voter to his/her proper voting place.
Election officials and the League of Women Voters in Oregon do not share the worries about people voting more than once. They report that some people have tried it and been caught. One election official reportedly tested the system just to see what would happen and the duplicate was indeed detected. There was a case where several absentee ballots were sent from the same address, but they also were flagged.