Despite technology, voting system not likely to change soon
By KENT HARRIS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 6, 2008
VICENZA, Italy — American servicemembers began casting absentee ballots during the Civil War. Almost 150 years later, thousands of Americans living overseas will help choose the country’s 44th president in largely the same way.
Absentee voting — often a convenience in the States — is a necessity for those stationed away from home. And the present method, though not perfect, is probably the way it’ll be done for the foreseeable future, according to John Fortier, an author and analyst with the American Enterprise Institute. He and colleague Tom Mann are near the end of a speaking tour around Italy talking about American elections.
Fortier said he’s not aware of any studies that indicate just how many Americans living abroad vote. But he said the system is set up to make a vote cast in Europe or Japan just as important as one in Nebraska.
“I think sometimes that people think they are just a small part of the system and their vote really doesn’t matter,” he said. “I strongly disagree with that.”
As far as the system itself goes, Fortier has his doubts that Americans living far from home will be able to make a few clicks on their home computers to choose a new leader any time soon.
“We’ve had a couple of different studies on that and [technology] just isn’t ready,” he said.
Some people already have concerns that electronic voting machines in the States could be hacked. And computerized voting would widen that risk, he said. Each individual voting district also would have to buy into the concept and use compatible software or systems to make it work universally.
Fortier said absentee voting — and early voting espoused by some States — has grown substantially in the last two decades. The state of Oregon is the most extreme and now holds all of its elections via absentee ballots.
He has written a book on the subject, “Absentee and Early Voting: Trends, Promises and Perils,” and thinks the best method is still the traditional voting booth. That’s because absentee ballots don't have nearly the same level of privacy. Absentee voters could be choosing for themselves at home or could be influenced by others because the voting can take place anywhere, Fortier said.
He said he also believes that voting booths create a greater sense of community. Fortier said he could see voting booths set up on military bases overseas, though that would create a series of logistical challenges to get the votes back to the right places. It might also create different stresses on a mail system that’s sometimes challenged today to deliver all the absentee ballots back to their destinations on time.