Vote By Mail: What is Grover Norquist Really Afraid Of?

On Thursday, July 6th, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, who once infamously said that he's like to shrink the U.S. Government to a size that would allow it to be "drowned in a bathtub," addressed an audience of progressive journalists at a breakfast sponsored by The American Prospect Magazine. 

Norquist on Vote By Mail:

"The big question mark for the Republicans is voter fraud. When you have more mail-in ballots you have more opportunity for voter fraud. When you have voter ID, you have less. And there are different trends there: an opening up of same-day registration and vote by mail, which gives you more opportunity for voter fraud, and picture ID and some of the other changes which give you less opportunity for voter fraud. We see voter fraud as a growing part of the Democratic Party's militia."

Norquist's statement is both disingenuous and revealing.

First, Norquist posits Vote By Mail as a "Democratic" rather than a "Republican" issue. In truth however, Vote By Mail is now, and has historically been supported by both Democrats and Republicans. In Washington State, Vote By Mail was first introduced by Ralph Munro, a Republican Secretary of State who held that office for twenty-five years, and who remains a staunch supporter. Mr. Munro was followed by Washington's current Secretary of State, Republican Sam Reed, who has fought to move the state even further along the path towards all-Vote By Mail elections.

In Oregon, Vote By Mail was first introduced - and championed - by Republican Secretary of State Norma Paulus, who also remains a fierce advocate. The two men who followed her into that office, Phil Keisling and Bill Bradbury - both Democrats - are strong Vote By Mail advocates as well.

In Arizona, a 2006 ballot initiative that will give voters the option of moving that state to all-Vote By Mail elections was launched - and has been primarily funded by - Rick L. Murphy, a Republican former state legislator. The initiative, which looks very likely to make the November ballot, has been endorsed by the broadest possible range of supporters, from former Congressman Barry Goldwater Jr. to Rev. Oscar Tillman, President of the Maricopa County NAACP.

Far from being leery of "fraud" under permissive absentee registration regimes, the Republican party has spent tens of millions of dollars over the years to register their supporters as absentee voters in states where they are allowed to do so. It strains credulity to imagine that these efforts are designed to accommodate malfeasance by Republican voters. It is more likely that the GOP has made these investments because they know that voters who receive their ballots in the mail are easier to motivate, and are more likely to vote consistently than voters who must show up at the polls on election day.

It is important to note, too, that Norquist contrasts Vote By Mail with pernicious voter ID requirements, which he supports, and which have the effect of discouraging and disenfranchising large numbers of otherwise eligible - mostly poor - voters.

There is no evidence that well-administered elections featuring large numbers of absentee voters are prone to fraud. In fact, the ability to verify every voter signature, as happens in Oregon, with re-countable paper ballots make Vote By Mail elections both transparent and secure.

Voters who are given the chance to receive and fill out their ballots at home overwhelmingly prefer it to the polling place. A 2003 study conducted by Priscilla Southwell (University of Oregon) found that five years after the switch to all-Vote By Mail elections, more than 80% of Oregon's voters did in fact prefer it to polling place elections, and more than 95% reported that they voted as often or more often under Vote By Mail.

In California, which four years ago went to voter-choice permanent absentee registration, it is likely that 50% of ballots cast in 2006 will be of the mail-in variety. And earlier this year, California's county clerks called for statewide Vote By Mail elections due to questions about the reliability of the state's touch-screen voting machines.

The issue seems to be that there are interests afoot in the country - independent of party - that have an interest in keeping voter participation as low as possible. Perhaps what Grover Norquist truly fears - given the radical nature of his views on government - is the voice, and the vote, of the broadest possible segment of the American electorate.