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We’re becoming a nation that votes by mail, and we should think of the consequences

SHARE We’re becoming a nation that votes by mail, and we should think of the consequences

Election “day” has begun. That’s “day” as in a loosely defined time period, like “back in the day ….”

Voters in 36 states and the District of Columbia already are casting ballots, including in Utah.

Some are showing up in person. In Salt Lake County, you can visit any of several locations, and it doesn’t even have to be close to your house.

Some are sitting at home, pencil in hand, going over candidates and ballot questions.

Others are … well, no one is quite sure.

Among the many changes brought about by this new trend in American democracy is an almost unnoticed move away from the reforms that followed the 2000 presidential election. New fangled machines and voter I.D. don’t matter if you use the mail.

Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen told me fully one-third of all ballots cast in the county in 2012 were by mail, and the percentage is growing. Utah is one of many states that now allows people to vote absentee without providing an excuse. Not only that, you can put yourself on a permanent absentee list, meaning the county automatically will send you a ballot every election cycle.

Between mailed ballots and early voting, more than half the people who vote in Salt Lake County will have cast ballots by the time Election Day (in name only) takes place Nov. 4. The same can be said for many parts of the nation.

This saves taxpayers money. But when it comes to mailed-in ballots, the only security check here or elsewhere involves election officials checking signatures on ballots against those voters gave at the time they registered. It’s as time-consuming and tedious as it sounds.

Maybe you had a stroke recently, or broke your hand. Chances are your mail-in ballot won’t make it to the final tally. But this isn’t the only danger.

Two years ago, the New York Times did a report on mail-in ballots and referred to something called “granny farming.” The story quoted former Miami County Attorney Murray Greenberg, who described this as when “people affiliated with political campaigns help people vote absentee … and help is in quotation marks.’ ”

Care centers, the story said, are ripe for fraud, but absentee ballots generally are much easier to compromise through bribes or intimidation than in-person voting.

So, is this sort of thing happening? Has grandma changed parties without even knowing it? Are care centers run by Boss Tweed’s descendants?

Well, maybe in Florida. Like all fears about voter fraud, it’s possible, but ….

It’s healthy for a democracy to obsess over voter fraud, even if the concerns are overblown.

I’ve never bought the scare stories about what happens when poll workers aren’t required to ask for I.D. Not only is in-person election fraud rare, it’s ineffective. Rigging an election requires something more grand and audacious, such as when Lyndon Johnson allegedly got dead people in one rural Texas precinct to rise up and vote for him in alphabetical order in the Senate race of 1948. There were a lot of people in on that one.

But I also don’t buy the scare tactics of the other side. Requiring identification isn’t a deal-killer in this day and age, especially if people are allowed to show things such as utility bills or if counties issue special I.D. cards at the time someone registers.

But if we’re becoming a nation of mail-in voters, we probably should stop and think about the consequences.

Beyond fraud is the worry that humans, as is well-known, mess up. In Utah, .2 percent of ballots were rejected in 2012, which conformed roughly to the national average, according to a study by the Pew Charitable Tusts. That’s not a lot, but in a nation this size it adds up, and it means some people didn’t vote when they thought they did.

Meanwhile, 10 percent of the mail-in ballots sent out nationwide in 2012 never came back. In Utah, the figure was 22.6 percent. Why this is happening is unclear, but it may not be good to have that many unused ballots floating around.

Election Day is morphing into “vote counting day,” which isn’t a reason to panic. It behooves us, however, to pay attention to what is happening.

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, jayevensen.com.