Absentee voting is easy, but is it right?

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Adorned in crisp white togas worn specifically for the day of an election, Roman citizens voted by crossing a raised platform and placing their marked tablet into a cistern.

Their ballots were secret, but their participation was very public.

Fast-forward to Election 2012: Florida’s voters can simply call their county’s supervisor of elections’ office and request a ballot be sent to them. Then, without a witness verifying the act, this ballot can be returned without the voter having placed one foot inside a voting booth.

No one expects us to wear togas anymore, but elections should still require more of a voter than casting a ballot from home, perhaps dressed in nothing more than underwear. Voting is a privilege and, since the civil rights movement, it is a right. Is it supposed to be a convenience?

For the few actually registered to vote and who bother to cast a ballot, it cannot be that difficult to steal five minutes from the day to visit a polling place conveniently located in their neighborhood.

Of course, there are those, such as disabled people or soldiers serving overseas, who cannot physically take part in the voting process. Millions of Floridians employed an absentee ballot during the last election, and most election experts project that number to rise dramatically this election.

Much of this increase can be attributed to demagogic efforts to scare an already frightened electorate about the security of their vote. With just a dash of irony, the Republican Party of Florida in years past has mailed voters a brochure urging them to use an absentee ballot because the “Evil Touch-Screen Machines Will Shoot Ray Beams Into Your Eyes” or something to that effect. As if handing over your ballot to the U.S. Postal Service for delivery to a sprawling bureaucracy staffed by temp workers provides any peace of mind.

Proponents of absentee voting also argue that the process allows voters to make better decisions because they are not being rushed. Perhaps. But can a voter be expected to make an informed decision a month before an election, when debates have yet to occur or editorial endorsements have yet to be written?

Absentee voting is dramatically changing the nature of elections – and not necessarily for the better. Campaigns must begin earlier and spend more time and money to “track” absentee ballot requestors.

As an example, each county’s election supervisor typically produces for campaign managers a daily list of the voters who request an absentee ballot. The names on these lists are quickly input into databases, so that each receives a first-class mailing, a candidate visit or telephone calls. Obviously, this is an expensive operation. In fact, in the campaigns I’ve worked for, the tracking program described here is often the second-highest expense behind television airtime.

When it comes down to it, identifying absentee voting by that name is a sham. Certainly early voting would be a better term. That may sound like splitting hairs, but the act of voting – of actually casting a ballot – is a tradition passed down to us from civilizations more than two millennia old. Sparing five minutes to carry on that legacy seems like a small sacrifice to the ideals of republican democracy.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.