In every generation, long-settled issues hibernate like cicadas, patiently waiting until new controversies propel them to the surface. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the latest of these hardy perennials is absentee voting.
Gov. Gavin Newsom of California is the boldest Democrat, proposing that absentee ballots be widely distributed throughout his state — apparently like toilet paper (supplies of which remain limited). But this newest paper chase is motivated by the noblest of intentions: guaranteeing risk-free voting in the 2020 presidential election.
After all, what does it matter if the franchise is effectively extended to the undocumented, the felonious, the homeless, the unlettered and the unentitled? Isn’t absentee voting just another form of social distancing to fight COVID-19?
Benjamin Franklin’s timeless warning about the fragility of the American democratic experiment — “a Republic, if you can keep it” — is being studiously ignored and not just in California. Wherever two or more Democrats are gathered together, their familiar tropes are always close at hand. Try to discuss voter fraud and you are immediately charged either with racism or a thinly-disguised bias against immigrants.
Any suggestion that community voting records need to be periodically reviewed for citizenship (Are you here legally?); accuracy (Do you still live in this district?); or even mortality (Are you still alive?) will result in either impassioned arguments or nasty allegations that your real agenda is voter suppression. Can you imagine the catastrophic effects on our already strained banking system if our credit bureaus relied on this same kind of outdated, uncorroborated information?
One of the most insightful sources on voting problems in California and elsewhere is the public interest group Judicial Watch. Its president, Tom Fitton, believes that “dirty (voter) rolls can mean dirty elections,” so the group aggressively files lawsuits whenever problems are uncovered.
For example, one Kentucky investigation “found that 48 Kentucky counties … had more registered voters than citizens over the age of 18.” How widespread is the problem? In January, Judicial Watch announced that, with the assistance of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, it had found “2.5 million extra voter names” spread across 378 American counties.
Far from voter suppression, those alarming totals suggest that political machines of various stripes are aggressively engaging in vote harvesting. With the American political system in hyper-drive, correcting even the smallest of these anomalies is quickly condemned by one armed camp or the other.
A new wrinkle on these old arguments began to emerge around the Memorial Day holiday. Since our military has a well-organized system of absentee balloting, why couldn’t similar arrangements reduce the threat of COVID-19? A federal judge in San Antonio, Texas, last week even opined that the problem of voter fraud was theoretical while the coronavirus is a clear and present danger.
I smiled because one of my most treasured personal souvenirs is a red-line version of the “Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act” signed into law in August 1986 by President Ronald Reagan. Working for Sen. John Warner as an Army Congressional Fellow, I managed that legislation while learning that bipartisan leadership is essential in protecting our citizen-soldiers.
I had been one of those soldiers, several of my applications for military absentee ballots lost or ignored during successive Cold War assignments. After Congressman Al Swift, a Democrat from Washington, wrote a bill to strengthen absentee voting, Mr. Warner assigned me to shepherd its counterpart through the Senate. From organizing hearings to signing up co-sponsors — including both Jesse Helms and Edward Kennedy — bipartisan cooperation became the order of the day.
Keeping it that way meant consistently demonstrating two things: ballot security and the absence of any advantage to either party. The entire military chain of command would certify the bona fides of each soldier, sailor, airman and marine. Democratic and Republican witnesses assured the Senate that this legislation would provide both parties with a level playing field.
The only real opposition came when a Virginia election official angrily shouted that, “Votin’ may be a raht, but absentee votin’ is a privilege!” — a statement I later included verbatim in the Senate record. But everyone else agreed that the proposed legislation was right, proper and badly needed. Those facts notwithstanding, this obscure law later helped to decide the presidential election of 2000. Remember Florida, the hanging chads and those troublesome military absentee ballots?
Well, you’re welcome, America, but try to remember that this was a legacy of the ’80s, when partisanship ended on Capitol Hill every day at 5 p.m. as glasses were raised. Try expanding absentee ballot rights today only if you are encouraged by such helpful precedents as the Titanic, Lusitania and Hindenburg.
• Ken Allard is a retired U.S. Army colonel and former NBC News military analyst now living in San Antonio, Texas.
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