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A Very Absentee Ballot

absentee ballot envelope, held up to display instructions on the back
photo by Nadya Peek

My mother-in-law passed away long ago enough that Democrats were still bragging about the Affordable Care Act. Yet her death was evidently no impediment to her qualifications as a voter in someone’s eyes.

This fall, she received an absentee ballot so she could participate in the New York elections in the county where she once resided. She certainly did not request that ballot. Nor did her husband, who is still alive but in his 90s. Nor did anyone else who lives at that address. We will never know who did. But someone is convinced that she should be able to vote in this year’s election. My wife’s mother never told me what she did in the voting booth, but for what it’s worth, her demographic profile was that of a loyal Democrat.

According to the New York State Board of Elections, you must fill out an application form for an absentee ballot and mail it to your county board no later than seven days before the election, or deliver it in person no later than the day prior. You may also send a letter requesting a ballot, in which case the application will be sent to you with the ballot and should be returned with your votes. Unless you indicate that you are permanently ill or disabled, you must reapply every year in which you need an absentee ballot.

New York’s absentee ballot application does not ask for much in the way of information. A name, address, date of birth and a signature will suffice. (Even the phone number is optional.) The instructions do inform voters that it is a felony to make a false statement in an absentee ballot application. But should fraudsters worry?

Back in the early 1980s, I covered the trial of New York State Sen. Vander Beatty, who was charged with election fraud for having his supporters forge the signature of voters during his unsuccessful run for a Congressional seat. Beatty was a colorful character, pronouncing himself “innocent as Jesus Christ” and vociferously claiming the prosecution was racially motivated. He was convicted.

Prosecutions for vote fraud like Beatty’s are very rare, however, for many reasons. For one thing, in nearly all American elections, most voters don’t go to the polls. Local elections often have turnout rates well below 50 percent. Last year’s election for New York City mayor drew a record low number of voters, only 24 percent of those registered. If anyone impersonates a voter who appears on the rolls, the chances of discovery are slim. And since New York is among the 16 states that do not require voters to show any sort of identification, all a person need do is provide a name and a signature - whether on an absentee ballot or before pulling an old-fashioned lever (still in use at some New York polling sites).

Because of this, evidence of vote fraud, if it exists at all, is difficult and time-consuming to gather, and law enforcement generally has bigger fish to fry. Even in places like Chicago, legendary for its advice to “vote early and vote often,” prosecutions for election fraud are harder to find than Democrats who pledge to support every Obama initiative for the last two years of his presidency.

In many places, too, prosecutors themselves are elected with either the active or tacit support of whoever happens to hold the levers of local political power. They have little incentive to take on party bosses. Nor do judges, at least in New York, where they likewise need to stand for election.

Given all that, it does not seem like much to ask of people requesting ballots that they document that they are who they say they are.

As we approach Election Day, however, this proposition has been repeatedly challenged. The Supreme Court recently issued an order to allow Texas to use its strict voter identification law in the upcoming election; Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a strongly worded six-page dissent, in which she was joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. The order and the dissent were the latest in an ongoing debate about voter ID laws, which have become a strongly partisan issue.

Asking that voters present identification should not be a controversial proposition. The government should, however, make the procedure to establish suitable proof reasonably accessible and essentially free of charge for those who need something other than what most of us already carry in the form of driver’s licenses, passports or state-issued ID cards. Most state voter ID laws today do not apply to absentee voters, either, an oversight that should be addressed. It is a common-sense approach to address a legal issue, and it should be the government’s job to make sure that those with a right to vote have proper access while those without one do not.

The idea that voter ID laws are mere attempts to suppress turnout by poor and minority voters, and that there is no need for ID requirements, is demonstrably false. Don’t take my word for it. Just ask my mother-in-law.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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