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Opinion

Rumored efforts to rein in absentee voting miss the mark


  • By Clay Neely
  • |
  • Jan. 25, 2021 - 5:02 PM

Rumored efforts to rein in absentee voting miss the mark

The Newnan Times-Herald

The 2020 election cycle has finally come to a close, but unfortunately, the fallout is far from over. As it stands, a large number of Georgians are crying foul because they believe that the election results are illegitimate and Donald Trump should still be president.

When pressed to substantiate these claims, many of his followers have asserted that rampant voter fraud—particularly related to absentee voting—was responsible for Trump’s electoral rebuke. This seems unlikely, given that—to date—no credible evidence of widespread, organized efforts to defraud the election has come to light.

Nevertheless, perhaps due to the apparent groundswell of disgruntled voters, the Georgia General Assembly appears poised to reform voting. While it is impossible to know what final legislation might entail, rumors are circulating that some legislators are advocating for the repeal of no-excuse absentee voting and even banning ballot drop boxes. However, if their goals are to secure the integrity of elections and promote civic engagement, then they should tread carefully.

No-excuse absentee voting provisions empower legal, registered voters to cast absentee ballots without providing an excuse. For years, many states would only extend the privilege of absentee voting to citizens who were seriously ill or out of town on election day, but beginning in the 1970s, states began permitting anyone to submit absentee ballots for any reason.

Today, a large majority of states have adopted this policy, including the Peach State. In fact, no-excuse absentee voting has a proud Republican history in Georgia where it has been law since 2005 when a Republican legislature and governor enacted the measure. Only now, after the state flipped blue, is there real momentum to alter Georgia’s voting paradigm, but fraud is given as the justification for these supposedly needed reforms.

However, the truth of the matter is that no-excuse absentee voting has been demonstrated to be safe and secure. Out of millions of ballots cast since 2005—when no-excuse absentee voting became law—there have been just five proven cases of “Fraudulent Use Of Absentee Ballots,” according to the Heritage Foundation. Even though none of these cases would have been enough to overturn their respective elections, zero fraud should be the goal, but the limited number of convictions is evidence of a very secure system. Indeed, there are many protections in place to guard against absentee voter fraud, including ballot tracking and signature verification, which is remarkably accurate; A signature match audit in Cobb County showed a 99.99 percent accuracy rate.

Despite this, some believe that eliminating no-excuse absentee voting will either reduce voter fraud or at least close paths to it, but that doesn’t seem to be the truth. First, there was no widespread absentee voter fraud. Second, repealing no-excuse absentee voting will not remove a purported avenue to fraud.

Consider this: If no-excuse absentee voting is repealed, then only approved excuses could be the basis for absentee voting. Yet voters’ excuses certainly will not be verified. Election offices likely will not require doctors’ notes or travel itineraries. Rather, the excuse system will probably be based on the honor system.

The problem here is if people are really intent on committing felonies to defraud the election, then implementing an excuse-only system primarily based on the honor system won't alter their behavior. It will only prevent honest folks from submitting no-excuse ballots, which will suppress voter turnout.

What’s more, many small-government proponents will likely say that they shouldn’t be compelled to provide the state with a justification to vote because their excuse is none of the government’s business.

Likewise, efforts to ban ballot drop boxes will not be beneficial. These drop boxes are simply an extension of absentee voting and are receptacles where voters can personally return their ballots. While not a new concept in the United States, their use spread in the COVID-19 pandemic’s wake as an additional mode of voting that encourages social distancing.

However, they’ve grown in popularity for other reasons. Ballot drop boxes can be used 24 hours a day—making them highly convenient—and give those wary of the U.S. Postal Service a safe, alternative method of casting absentee votes. They are designed to prevent vote tampering and are highly resilient, and Georgia’s 24-hour outdoor drop boxes are under constant video surveillance.

Further, every ballot inserted into a ballot drop box must undergo the rigorous absentee voting process to ensure each vote is legitimate. Put simply, voters should have confidence in ballot drop boxes, but like repealing no-excuse absentee voting, prohibiting them could have damaging effects, including reducing voter engagement from both Republicans and Democrats.

Time will tell what Georgia’s voting reform measures will look like, but if the objective is to further secure the integrity of our elections, then banning drop boxes and no-excuse absentee voting isn’t the answer.

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Marc Hyden is the director of state government affairs at the R Street Institute, and he is a long-time Georgia resident. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.