SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco. -- It's bad enough that growing numbers of Americans are voting by absentee ballot. Now there's actually a serious proposal that entire elections be conducted by mail.
The recommendation for Congress to consider mail voting comes from the General Accounting Office, the so-called congressional watchdog agency that should know a whole lot better.
The GAO says that by making it easier for people to cast ballots, mail voting would increase voter participation by as much as 40 percent.
There's certainly no doubt it would make voting easier. Ask an absentee voter. Many prefer that method because it enables them to vote ''in more detached, laid-back manner,'' notes Mark DiCamillo, an official of the leading polling organization in California, where almost one-fifth of the votes cast in last November's election were absentee.
But easier doesn't necessarily mean better in exercising democratic rights any more than it does in exercising the mind or body.
Are we better off because the increasingly heavy reliance on television sound bites and commercials has made it easier to follow election campaigns? Are we better off because elections thus have become TV productions we need only watch? Has it helped that the overwhelming stress on polls has made it easier to avoid hard thinking about issues?
Now that the campaigns have become largely low-level entertainment akin to happy-talk news programs, just about the only effort still required of us is that we vote. That, of course, is the most basic act of all in a democratic society, and we should shudder at the prospect of masses of citizens casting their ballots in as easy, detached, isolated and passive a manner as they do in voting by mail for their auto club's hand-picked slate of directors.
It's true enough that voter turnout has been declining drastically, to not much more than one-third of the registered voters in the most recent general elections. But it would make a lot more sense to try to increase the turnout through serious campaigning around issues that truly mean something to people, rather than by simply making it easier for them to cast their ballots for candidates whose campaigns rely on style rather than substance. The media could help, too, by treating campaigns as something other than horse races.
Nor in this day of budget deficits should the expense of mail balloting be forgotten. Judging by the costs of absentee voting, the cost would be a lot more than required for the kind of voting that brings people to the polls to mingle with their neighbors. The price is $2 to $3 more per absentee vote, to cover postage and the laborious hand-counting of ballots and checking and double-checking of the signatures on them.
But the most important consideration, as even the GAO acknowledges, is the very serious threat of fraudulent voting.
In California, Texas and several other states that allow people to vote absentee for any reason, it's already become common for parties, candidates and special-interest groups to distribute masses of absentee ballot applications to people they expect to support them. They deliver millions of votes for their causes, many from people who might not vote at all if they weren't encouraged to cast ballots the way those with a vested interest want them cast.
As Joseph Grodin, a former member of California's Supreme Court, said, ''It is inevitable that political and special-interest groups will be tempted to 'assist' voters in casting their ballots, perhaps at organizational parties at which the marking and mailing of ballots constitutes a group activity.''
Just because someone signs a ballot, after all, doesn't mean that someone else didn't do the actual voting or didn't at least ''coach'' the signer. It's also quite possible, as the GAO noted, that those seeking the support of mail voters could get it by paying them, coercing them or forging their names.
Policing mail balloting would be impossible. That's reason enough to oppose the idea. But there are other reasons, as columnist Herb Caen observed:
''Going to the polls is beginning to seem old-fashioned, and that's why I like it. The flag is at the entrance and the sweet-faced volunteers leaf through the big book to find your name, a ritual stretching back to mistiness. It is not without a certain pride that one signs the big book, signifying democracy in action.''
Dick Meister is a San Francisco writer.