After a big month in September, there’s not a lot more happening this
year for election watchers. This Sunday is the second round of Poland’s
presidential election, and an election for half the lower house of the
Argentinean parliament. Then on 8 November, New Jersey votes for a new
governor and legislature.
I find New Jersey interesting because I used to live there, but this
time it’s of more general interest, as explained by this story in the Newark Star-Ledger.
The state has just introduced “no-excuse” postal voting, where anyone
can get a postal vote without having to show cause for not turning up
at a polling booth on election day. Both parties are busily rounding up
postal voters, and election officials are bracing themselves for a big
increase in their number. (Confusingly, the Americans call them
“absentee votes,” a term that means something different in Australia.)
You might think that, in a country with such abysmally low voter
turnout, any move to get more people voting would be a good thing. But
the trend to postal voting is a bit worrying; it’s reported that in
Arizona, for example, the proportion of postals has reached 43%. Yet
it’s not clear that it has improved turnout. Curtis Gans, a researcher
at American University, said that up until last year “states with
no-excuse absentee voting had lower overall turnouts than other states.”
Psephologists hate postal voting, because you can’t tell where votes
are coming from; there’s no way of getting any geographical pattern out
of them. But you don’t have to be a psephologist to think that an
election where everyone votes from home instead of going to a polling
booth is missing something, that an important part of the democratic
experience has been lost. It also multiplies the opportunities for
fraud and intimidation.
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In Australia, we don’t have “no-excuse” laws yet, but we have seen a
big increase in postal and pre-poll voting in recent years. Their share
of the total vote jumped from 6.1% in 1993 to 10.8% last year. And in
Victoria most local councils have taken the final step of abolishing
polling booths altogether and conducting their elections entirely by
post. Great for council bureaucrats, but not so good for democracy.