Is the push for a mail-only election system in Tucson really about the rights of voters or is it about solidifying the power of political parties. Supporters will say that a mail-only system of voting will increase voter turnout and make it easier for many to come to cast a ballot. Frankly, those views do express a real resolve to make a better voting system and there are indications from other municipalities that the system does work. So without faulting the motives of any side of the issue, let's looks at some ideas surrounding the issue.
Why call it a Mail-Only System?
The system is actually pretty simple. The city prints ballots for every registered voter and sends them to their listed address. Before Election Day ballots must be sent into the City Clerks Office to be tallied. Provisions for late ballots and mistaken votes would be in place and if you wanted to vote at the polls in a traditional manner sufficient polling places would be provided. If you forgot to send in your ballot, you can take it to the polls on Election Day. Who could argue with that?
Well, since the City Charter says that the city only has to provide one polling place for each of its six wards we can see what the traditional form of voting could easily become. Unfortunately, too many scoff a traditional voters as a bit behind the times. Why can't the same experience of traditional voting be carried out with the family at the dinner table, they might say? Well, if you are a traditional polling place voter you might see why going to the polls as your parents taught you and their parent taught them is a bit more important. It might seem a part of the American heritage. On the other hand, traditions do change and most ritual changes with the progress of time. It should follow that changes that do upset such traditions must have true purpose and worthy results.
A problem is seen, though, when we see that everything that could be done under such a system can be done under our current system. Except that the mailing of ballots to every voter could create a logistical nightmare on voting day as poll workers try to assure that everyone qualified gets a chance to vote and no one votes more than once. So it seems that in order to mail ballots to all voters without their asking for it requires that traditional voting is minimized. Thus, the real push here is for a Mail-Only system with a minimum provision for traditional voting.
Concerns of Fraud
Every election year my neighborhood suffers a rash of political sign destruction and theft. It could be because of our proximity to the university or our tendancy to vote in a party specific manner. Given this historic problem, how safe will our ballots be in our mailboxes? Okay, so mail theft is a crime, but so is the theft of political signs. When it is well known that election ballots will be mailed under a required system, can we trust that our ballots will get to the registrar? We currently aren't notified, though political parties are. So when we see election results, will we be sure that we took part?
With as few as six polling places city-wide and a main computer system downtown it might seem that there would be fewer targets for voter fraud. That would be easier to watch and assure a safe voting system. When you consider who might commit such a fraud, the lone hacker looses credibility while the multinational corporate providers of machines gain a much easier target. In a state that doesn't allow a hand recount and allows votes to be counted on machines with software that we can't look at, fewer machines might be much more dangerous. Also, with all those votes being mailed the political power given to the mailroom or the guy on the street that used to be stealing your signs could be enormous.
Also, what would stop an organization from holding a "Patriotic Get out the Vote Party" where they provide food, music and maybe a bit to drink as they offer to help you fill out your ballot. No one would be telling you how to vote, but ...
It wouldn't be the first time that a favorable atmosphere was provided to sway the vote. This system, though, could add a great deal of punch to the idea. We would be coming a long way from the subliminal messaging of the smell of popcorn at City Council Meetings banned 1999.
Concerns about Political Party Control
Political parties have been and will remain an important part of the American political system. You can tell a great deal about a candidate and a political organization by it's party allegiance. That is why political parties are omitted from regulation under the "Do Not Call List". In a Mail-Only election system political parties won't have to call you to get you to agree to vote by mail, but just to get your vote in. So the Get Out The Vote (GOTV) effort becomes easier for an organized political party. Also, once your caller gets notification that your ballot has arrived downtown, you'll stop getting the automated calls. Thus a relief to your life when you simply comply with that constant call.
There lies power to the major political party structure that an independent or third-party candidate will have a hard time matching. Political parties will always tend to win with the organizing strength that they work hard to build. That is good, but one thing that keeps power in check is the possibility of a third party or Independent candidate taking the field. Organization aside, elections should be run on a level playing field. If you believe that we need as many voices at the tables of power to debate and find the best of answers, you'll probably see that this concern is an important one.
Concerns about Timing
At what point does the important debate about our city's future end. On Election Day or on the first day that ballots can be mailed in? Often important developments occur near election day. If your candidate reveals himself as something unacceptable to you three weeks before Election Day and after you've mailed your ballot will you be happy with the system. Sure there could be a provision that allows you to come down to City Hall and vote a provisional ballot replacing your old one, but what if your schedule and downtown parking makes the trip overly difficult? Previously you've always known where and when you go to the polls as did politicians. That's why they've made those last minute pushes for votes. With Election Day turning into Election Season, could marketing forces gain even more power over the process.
Concerns about Voting under Prop-200 Guidelines
in the election of 2002 Arizona continued its policy for turning out to vote overwhelmingly for something that many hold to be basically unconstitutional. English-only and the ban of Bilingual Education voted in by precincts that are, well, not majority hispanic, proceeded Prop-200. This provision requires identification at the polls and was specifically targeted towards hispanic peoples by many backers. This leads to a strong possibility of vote disenfranchisement for those different from the majority. So here lies a strong argument for a Mail-only system, as a mailed ballot is checked downtown with no one to interfere or intimidate. Sadly this intimidation does happen.