Absentee ballots handy, but voting's thrill feels absent too

Civic ritual of Election Day should make way for voting by mail, advocate argues

I have seen the polling booth of the future. And it is a table at a nice restaurant with a glass of pinot grigio.

At least it was for my mother and me. We filled out our ballots over dinner last week, then sealed them in envelopes that I later mailed, combining an evening out with a new kind of voting opportunity.

This is the first presidential election in Illinois in which anyone could vote by absentee ballot — for any reason or none at all. All you had to do was ask to be mailed a ballot.

And since I was going to ask on behalf of my not-too-mobile mother, I figured I might as well go for convenience myself.

So did a lot of other people. In suburban Cook County, there were 46,000 requests for mail ballots in this election, up nearly 160 percent compared with 2008, said Cook County Clerk David Orr. As of Sunday, the clerk's office had received 42 percent more mail ballots than at the same point in 2008.

"We think mail [voting] will dramatically grow over a period of time," Orr said.

There was a smaller increase in the city — 15 percent more voters requested absentee ballots this year than in 2008. But even before Election Day, a higher percentage absentee ballots had been sent back than in 2008.

Still, "the vast majority of our voters will tell you they are traditionalists," said Jim Allen, spokesman for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners. "They like going to vote on Election Day."

Me, too. Still, this year I went for convenience.

And I got it, along with a Caesar salad topped with grilled chicken.

But come tomorrow, Election Day will feel a little flatter, a little less special, a little less — electoral.

I've always loved the civic ritual of voting. My neighbors and I walked through the crisp autumn air to the nearby school, chatted as we waited our turn, then stepped up to the booth and did our part for democracy.

I liked knowing that people across the country were doing the same thing on the same day. It felt like a communal rite, one that transcended the bitterest campaign and most serious differences and united us as voters.

Popping an envelope into the mail just wasn't the same.

Voting by mail is increasingly common. More states are offering "no-excuse" absentee voting, reports the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. In Oregon and Washington, registered voters are automatically sent ballots and elections are conducted almost entirely by mail.

Do voters there miss voting in person? Judging by my cousins Shainie and Michael Schuffler, Chicago natives who have lived in Seattle for decades, not a bit.

"I love voting at home," emailed Michael when I asked. "I get all the info I've collected in front of me, including ... op-ed and relevant news pieces, and then make my decisions."

"I like sitting down with my booklet and newspaper articles making my final decisions without feeling rushed," wrote Shainie. "There is never an excuse for not voting when you have the ballot at home and can send it in up to 2 weeks early or the last minute."

Experts' verdicts are mixed. Voting by mail does not necessarily increase voter turnout in a presidential election, said Robert Pastor, co-director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University, and is more vulnerable to fraud or error. However, he said most people like it for the convenience.

Absentee ballots have been rejected when voters made a mistake like putting two ballots in one envelope, said Michael P. McDonald, associate professor of government and politics at George Mason University. In the 2008 election, according to the election assistance commission, states rejected more than 400,000 absentee ballots for various reasons — 1.7 percent of those they had received.

 

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