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MAY 7, 2004

From these honored dead

When absentee voters become heroes
By Betsey Culp

In the grand scheme of things, does local politics really matter while all hell is breaking loose in Iraq? Yes, it does, probably more than ever.

Because the subconscious loves to play tricks, I kept hearing a sentimental World War I song as background music for the past week’s horrific scenes of prisoner abuse: “Keep the home fires burning… ’til the boys come home.”

The irony is, of course, that an ever-increasing number of boys and girls won’t come home. Each day more servicemen and women lose their lives as they participate in President Bush’s “new story of democracy and development and trade” in the Middle East. The shameful attendants on their sacrifice — the dishonor guard, if you will — are the series of irresponsible and cruel acts that their service has made possible.

“Each day … someone has to give up his life so that the United States doesn't have to admit something that the entire world already knows, so that we can't say that we have made a mistake.” The words are John Kerry’s, spoken in 1971, during another American war. My attitude toward the Massachusetts senator’s candidacy hovers somewhere in the neighborhood of cautious optimism. But I firmly believe that we have allowed present-day politics to diminish his importance in framing the debates of thirty years ago.

The debates of thirty years ago? Or today? Take another look at Kerry’s historic speech to the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. In the light of recent news, it acquires new and terrifying relevance as it describes the wayward course of a nation gone awry.

Within its somber message, however, a few sparks glimmer, hints of restorative home fires that add warmth to Kerry’s concluding challenge: “Make more clear than ever our own determination to undertake one last mission — to search out and destroy the last vestige of this barbaric war, to pacify our own hearts, to conquer the hate and fear that have driven this country.”

Perhaps we needed one more barbaric war before we got it right. In any case, beneath the surface pattern of macho gestures and monolithic media representations, the United States today is fairly bursting with determination to implement change. Hundreds of thousands of people are eager to give life to the values that the founding fathers so proudly proclaimed at the beginning of our Constitution. As our long-vaunted diversity becomes a reality, we are trying out new ways of organizing people and finding new ways to connect our various parts. In the process, we may find that it’s time to send a few sacred cows out to pasture for a well-earned rest. Or we may discover new ways of putting them to work.

Here’s one example. In future weeks, there will be many more.

Around the world, the proudest symbol of a democratic government is the ballot box. It has become common for teams of observers to descend on developing nations from all over the world to make sure that newly enfranchised citizens cast their votes honestly and freely. Some of the America’s proudest moments occurred because of U.S. citizens’ determination to participate in their own country’s election process.

That was then. This is now. You know the story: on a good day, we can expect voter turnouts of 38 percent, 43 percent, maybe 50 percent of registered voters. Don’t even try to calculate the percentage of eligible voters who actually perform their civic duty.

Imagine you are a fiery progressive candidate who has proposed some extremely promising new approaches to old problems. You decide to run for office — say, for mayor. Your campaign energizes the people of your city, including many who have never voted before. Volunteers appear out of nowhere; voter registration skyrockets. On election night in precinct after precinct, the final tally shows that you have won.

But the absentee ballots say otherwise.

You lose.

Long before election day, the day when your excited supporters marched into their polling places and cast their ballots, your opponent began to organize behind the scenes. He created a stealth army of absentee voters —in the end, more than one-third of all the people who voted — who quietly ensured his victory.

What’s a fiery progressive candidate to do?

The founders of the Progressive Voter Project — Boris Delepine, Richard Marquez, John Radogno, and Bruce Wolfe — have taken the first and most obvious step. They have begun to recruit their own army. During the past few months, representatives of the PVP have fanned out all over the city, positioning themselves on well-trafficked street corners, clipboard in hand, asking people to register as permanent absentee voters. On night after night, they have conducted events — a political forum, a concert, a San Francisco trivia contest — where the price of admission was registration as a permanent absentee voter.

Aside from fighting fire with fire, what’s the point?

It turns out to be two-fold. Unlike the folks who envision themselves strolling over to their neighborhood polling place on election day, absentee voters are actually likely to vote. And because the Department of Elections notifies local organizations when people register absentee under their auspices, candidates have a better sense of whom to target.

But what a hodgepodge we’re left with! Both the city and the candidates will find themselves funding two parallel elections, as some voters refuse to re-register and continue to vote in the garage down the street; some register absentee but still show up at that nearby garage, either to turn in their ballot or to vote the old-fashioned way; and some actually mail in that absentee ballot

Eventually, the fiery progressive candidate is probably going to consider a second step: vote by mail. Oregon has done it statewide since 1995, with higher-than-usual turnouts and no demonstrable problems. A study conducted in 1996 by a University of Oregon political scientist reveale that more vote-by-mail voters were nonwhites or single parents than traditional voters. Both categories were more knowledgeable about current events than their nonvoting counterparts. But there was little statistical difference in the choice of candidate between the two voting groups. In other words, vote by mail is good because it gets people to vote, not because it delivers a specific outcome. The fiery progressive candidate will still have to convince voters he’s their man.

Proponents note that a voting system where the postal workers replace poll workers:

* Costs less.
* Leads to higher turnouts.
* Is easier for the Department of Elections to run.
* Provides more up-to-date information about eligible voters.
* Gives voters more time to study issues and make informed decisions.
* Allows districts to avoid the problems of touch-screen voting.

Because a ballot is a ballot is a ballot, it will make no difference in the implementation of ranked-choice voting. Voters can still perform the familiar exercise that they learned long ago at the ice cream counter: “I’d like rocky road: but if you don’t have rocky road, I’ll take chocolate; and if you’re out of chocolate, give me fudge ripple instead.”

Not everyone likes the idea. A quick Google turns up a few opponents, mainly conservatives or Republicans, who warn that all-mail-ballot elections should be outlawed because they offer opportunities for corruption. (Carry that argument to its logical conclusion!)

And a glance at the old corral turns up a small herd of very sacred cows, mooing loudly at the prospect of doing away with the institution of the neighborhood ballot box. They’re getting a little scrawny these days though, because people aren’t feeding them the votes they need to stay plump and perky. Maybe it’s time to turn them out to pasture.

You can begin by clicking onto the website at http://www.progressivevoterproject.com/images/finalform.pdf and downloading an application to become a permanent absentee voter. Fill out the form, sign it, and mail or fax it to the Department of Elections.

And then tell those cows to mooooove on, because a new day is coming.

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