Convenience Voting

RICHARD REEVES

December 10, 1992|By RICHARD REEVES

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles. -- The day may be coming, here and in othe places, when no one will come out to vote anymore. They will vote at home, which is exactly how almost 20 percent of Californians voted last month. One out of five people who, as newspapers say it, went to the polls actually didn't. More than 2 million people voted by mail -- using absentee ballots.

In the state of Texas, which had 17 little election days before the big one on November 3, one out of three voters cast their ballots at least four days before the official Election Day. They did it by mail, or by walking into local stores, or getting on board when mobile voting vans rolled through their neighborhoods -- all that happened between October 14 and October 30.

I don't know whether it will be sooner or later, but there is a revolution coming in American politics -- which will end with voting by telephone or television.

In California, where absentee ballots are accepted from four weeks to one week before Election Day, the number of people voting absentee is now about 18 percent, three times what it was 10 years ago. It's a little higher in general elections, a little lower in primaries -- 16.3 percent voted by mail in last June's primary.

For Californians, this really started in 1982. Only 6 percent of voters cast absentee ballots that year, but they turned out to be a dramatic minority because, in the race for governor that year, Tom Bradley, the Democratic mayor of Los Angeles, won the Election Day count -- but lost the election when absentee voters went heavily for his Republican opponent, state Attorney General George Deukmejian.

The Republicans, it turned out, had taken advantage of a 1978 law repealing old regulations that said absentee ballots could go only to voters who lived more than 10 miles from a polling place or could prove they had to be out of town on Election Day.

(The state paid county absentee-ballot costs totaling $3.2 million this year, but the counties will have to pay, or drop the program, beginning next year -- as part of the Golden State's crazed determination to get back to 19th-century tax levels and quality of life.)

Californians took notice in '82. What used to be a small thing for civic-minded folk who expected to be away from home on Election Day was a way to avoid an extra car trip and a wait in line at a local school or some other polling place. It was also a

way to avoid such inconveniences of modern urban life as muggings, car-jackings and drive-by shootings.

So this year in several close California races, voters had to wait a week or so until absentee ballots were all counted to find out who won and who lost. In fact, it was only Thanksgiving week that they finally knew who won a bitter race for Los Angeles County supervisor between state Sen. Diane Watson and former Congresswoman Yvonne Brathwaite Burke. (Ms. Burke won.)

In a State Assembly race in the San Joaquin Valley, where 15,000 of 115,000 voters cast absentee ballots, the Democratic candidate, Michael Machado, won by more than 1,000 votes on Election Day but lost by more than 2,000 votes among the absentees, giving the election to Republican Dean Andel.

When Texans adopted ''no excuse'' absentee voting in 1990 -- as in the old days in California, it used to be that in Texas you could get an absentee ballot only if you could prove you might be in the Persian Gulf or some other far place on Election Day -- someone got the idea that if you could vote by mail during the last two weeks of October, why couldn't you do it in person?

Why not? Texas adopted ''retail'' and ''mobile'' voting for those two weeks. By showing a registration card, voters could cast their ballots at supermarkets and in the vans anywhere in their county. Computers purged the lists each day to prevent people from voting both earlier and oftener.

New kinds of fraud are an obvious problem when voting systems are changed. I know things like that have never happened in Texas. But I'm a suspicious sort, having grown up in Jersey City, New Jersey, where a voter was given an absentee ballot when he or she died. In some local California elections, votes have been arriving in boxes delivered by United Parcel Service, collected by candidate organizations going door-to-door. And what if the door leads to a nursing home where some old people might be persuaded to sign papers without quite knowing that they were casting ballots?

But with or without problems, new voting systems are coming. New campaign techniques will not be far behind, beginning new rhythms and changing senses of momentum. There is no point in building a campaign to peak the weekend before Election Day if half the voters have already cast their ballots by then.

''What did it look like there?'' I asked Mark Bell in the office of the secretary of state in Austin while I was checking some Texas numbers.

''It looked like the future,'' he said. He just may be right.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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