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Editorial: Don't take chance on mail ballots

October 7, 2002

Every registered voter in Colorado who wants to vote by mail can do so; all they need to do is ask for a mail ballot. And political parties will be more than happy to remind many of them to ask, if they need reminding.

Every registered voter in Colorado who wants to vote in a precinct polling place on Election Day can do so; all they need to do is show up and sign in. For many people, that is a cherished part of a civic ritual.

Amendment 28 would first allow, and by 2005 require, that almost all the people in the second group join the first. We don't believe that is a good idea.

Under current law, election officials can choose to conduct balloting by mail in non-partisan elections (for example, the one held in November 2001), but not at general elections such as the one coming in November.

We understand mail voting's appeal, and have no problem with the increasing popularity of absentee ballots. But there's a big difference between the current system that requires a voter to ask for a mail ballot and one in which a ballot is automatically sent to the address of every registered voter. Thousands of those voters will have moved or will be away on trips. Others will have no particular interest in the current election and could very well leave their ballots lying around for days.

To be sure, signatures on returned ballots will be compared with a master list of registered voters, but is that security really enough? No one knows. Mail ballots simply haven't been around long enough to draw any firm conclusions.

Yes, we know Amendment 28 is a statute, and the legislature can change it if problems crop up or voting technology (think Internet) evolves during the next several years. That's certainly a point in its favor. And we readily acknowledge that mail balloting in non-partisan elections seems to have worked so far without serious incidents of fraud. But there is simply too much at stake in major elections for Colorado to move wholesale to a system that still lacks an established, problem-free track record. Among the 50 states, only Oregon has adopted mail ballots in all elections, and it did so only in 1998.

Sending mail ballots to hundreds of thousands of people who haven't requested them certainly offers greater opportunities for fraud than the current system. Nor do we know, if large-scale vote fraud were to occur, whether it could be detected in time to keep election results from being compromised, or if it were detected, whether those who committed it could be identified or successfully prosecuted.

We're not saying the present system is perfect. Absentee ballots are mailed too early (they're going out this week), meaning tens of thousands of Coloradans vote without any knowledge of developments during the final weeks of campaigning. The legislature needs to stipulate a later date for the mailing, as well as require a signature check on mail ballots during off-year elections. That way Colorado could gain more insight into how effective signature checks are at catching fraud - before it abandons a system that has worked in this state for more than 100 years.

 
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