Tuesday, October 17, 2006


Absentee voting

Eliot, Mike, and Andy; Hillary, John, and Sandy; they now officially have my votes.[1] For some dumb-bone reason, the IETF scheduled its November meeting in conflict with the US elections. It's easy to say that one can just do an absentee ballot (and in some states, like Oregon, that's the way everyone votes anyway), but there are reasons not to do that.

For one thing, it interferes with people who want to work on the election process, by volunteering at polling places, by doing last-minute canvassing for candidates, or by helping transport voters to the polls. That doesn't affect most of us, but some would like to put more into the system than just our vote. The IETF is a worldwide organization, of course, and at times it's difficult to work around possible issues in every country. Still, you'd think....

But another issue is that of absentee ballots in general, at least in most states. Obviously, for Oregon, where everyone's voting by mail, this part doesn't apply, and, indeed, the voting process — and the absentee voting process in particular — is different in every state. Here's how it works in New York:

  1. One gets an application for an absentee ballot — one can get that by mail, by stopping in at the county Board of Elections office, or by getting the PDF file from the web. I got the PDF and printed it.
  2. One fills out the application and mails it to the county Board of Elections, or brings it to the office in person. I brought mine there in person, yesterday afternoon.
  3. The Board of Elections mails out an absentee ballot, or hands it to the voter in person. I got mine in person, of course, since I was there.
  4. The voter fills out the ballot, seals it in a ballot envelope, and either puts that in another envelope and mails it back, or hands the ballot envelope to the person at the BoE office (I did the latter, having filled out my ballot on the spot).

It's a very convenient process, really. But it's what happens after that's less than satisfying. You see, it's very likely that my ballot will never be counted, never even be unsealed. The absentee ballots are only counted if they might make a difference to the election results. New York uses mechanical voting machines, the ones that have levers and that tally the votes. If, on election day in three weeks, the tallies on the machines decide a race by, say, 20,000 votes, and there are 5,000 absentee ballots for that race... the absentee ballots couldn't possibly change anything, so they won't go to the effort (and expense) of counting them. Senator Clinton is likely to win re-election by a huge majority, for instance. There's no chance that my vote will be counted for that race. It's quite likely that none of my votes will need to be counted at all, and that the envelope will never be opened.

I feel satisfied that I've done my civic duty by voting, and I'm amazed at the number of people who don't vote (in some countries, voting is mandatory, and one can be fined for not doing so). Yet I'm somewhat dissatisfied knowing that no one will tally my vote. We could be using optical recognition scanners, which are cheap and easy to use, to tally the absentee votes as they're received. These could be merged with the results of the voting machines, and, while there wouldn't be any difference in the end result, most of the absentee votes (excepting those for which the scan failed or was uncertain) would be counted. It's a technicality, but one that, if resolved, would make some of us feel better for having cast our absentee votes.

[1] Eliot Spitzer for governor, Mike Kaplowitz for state senator, Andrew Cuomo for attorney general, Hillary Clinton for US senator, John Hall for US representative, and Sandy Galef (who is actually running unopposed) for state representative.

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