Ralph E. Shaffer and
Walter P. Coombs



                   EARLY VOTING: DEMOCRACY'S NEWEST THREAT


    Thursday's revelation that George Bush had been arrested in 1976 for 
drunk driving raises serious questions about the current drive to encourage 
early voting throughout the nation.  Since millions of ballots had already 
been cast before his transgression was revealed, we may never know whether 
his indiscretion was important enough to affect the outcome of the 
presidential election.  We do know that this "November surprise" points out 
the gross perversion of the democratic process that results from the 
spreading practice of "early voting."

     Congress wisely decided long ago that the selection of presidential 
electors should take place on the same day throughout the country.  The 
first Tuesday after the first Monday in November became the day that 
citizens from Maine to California marched to the polls to cast their 
ballots for the next president. Regrettably, reformers have debased the 
system with the advent of mass absentee balloting, election by mail and the 
newest wrinkle, computer voting.

     In Los Angeles and Riverside counties this year voters could cast 
their ballots as early as October 16 at various sites furnished with 
touch-screen computers.  Fully three weeks before the end of the campaign 
and before even the last presidential debate, voters using this new 
technology began balloting. In many cases the official state handbook on 
propositions had not yet arrived.

     At about the same time ALL two million Oregon voters began casting 
early mail-in ballots while both major presidential candidates were still 
scheduling campaign stops in that state.  Oregon is the first state to 
replace traditional polling-place balloting with universal vote-by-mail, 
although thirteen others now encourage early voting in some form. By the 
time Bush's DUI conviction was exposed, the ballots of over one-third of 
the Oregon electorate had already been returned to the Secretary of State.  
Thousands of others were in the mail.  None of those voters could reach 
into the ballot box and change their votes if the Republican candidate's 
lapse seemed to warrant that.

     Defenders of early voting argue that it's designed to counter low 
voter turnout.  But low turnout results from a lack of issues or lazy 
voters.  It cannot be attributed to election day barriers.  Our polls are 
open from dawn to dusk, voters are given time off from work to vote, and 
absentee balloting has permitted voting by those who have legitimate 
reasons such as unavoidable duties elsewhere or physical incapacity to 
reach the polls. 

     The traditional system of absentee balloting differed significantly 
from the current one. In the past absentee ballots only went to voters who 
personally requested a mail-in ballot and were therefore likely to have a 
high degree of interest in the election.  They could be expected to handle 
their ballots in a responsible manner. That built-in protection no longer 
exists in the seventeen states that allow absentee voting without requiring 
any reason at all. California is one, and election officials estimate that 
nearly 4 million absentee ballots, about 30% of the total vote, will be 
cast by absentee ballot.

     That clearly creates an opportunity for fraud.  Vote-by-mail, whether 
it be in the form of expanded absentee balloting or as in the Oregon 
system,  exposes the voter to pressure from various groups, whether they be 
the Christian Coalition, employers, labor unions or other special 
interests.

    The potential effect of this new wave of early voting is to effectively 
wipe out the final weeks of the campaign, with millions of voters 
nationwide casting ballots before all the information necessary to an 
informed decision has reached them.  While the electorate is wary of last 
minute, bogus news stories about one or more candidates, unexpected events 
in the final days of the campaign can properly affect the outcome. 

    The late October, 1888, revelation that the British Ambassador 
considered Grover Cleveland more friendly to Britain than his Republican 
opponent turned Cleveland's expected victory into defeat as Irish-Americans 
deserted the Democratic party.  Early voting, non-existent then, would 
probably have returned Cleveland to the White House,.

   News of Bush's dereliction could have a comparable result,  but thanks 
to early voting he may avoid the consequences of his act.

                            - - -

(Ralph E. Shaffer is professor emeritus in history at Cal Poly Pomona: 
Walter P. Coombs is professor emeritus in American Studies there.  They may 
be reached at reshaffer@csupomona.edu.)