ONE REFRAIN heard during the Washington-area sniper rampage was that voters in Montgomery and Prince George's counties would shun the polls if the killer were not caught by Election Day, changing the outcome of the gubernatorial race.
So we can add snipers to bad weather, illness and a myriad other reasons why so many people don't vote and, as a result, why some candidates win for the wrong reasons.
American voter turnout historically has been low. In Maryland, only one-third of registered voters go to the polls in primary elections. In non-presidential general elections, the statewide vote rarely is above 60 percent of registered voters.
When Ronald Reagan first was elected president in 1980 in what was called a landslide, only 54 percent of registered voters nationwide went to the polls. Mr. Reagan received slightly less than 51 percent of the vote in that three-way race, meaning that less than 28 percent of all eligible voters voted for him.
If we are to be a true democracy, if we believe that every vote counts, we must increase voter participation to ensure that those elected represent the will of the people. One way to do this is to use technology to make voting more accessible, to offer the voter an alternative to having to travel to a polling place in a process little changed from the days of George Washington.
Although absentee ballots can be cast by mail, they must be requested at least a week before the election and mailed by then. Up to Election Day, application can be made for an absentee ballot and such a ballot cast, but a voter or authorized representative must hand-deliver the ballot to the election office since the time for mail-in ballots will have expired.
Our low-tech system of casting ballots in person or by mail basically disenfranchises the participation of the elderly, the handicapped, the ill and others who may suddenly find it impractical to get to the polls during voting hours. We would hardly tolerate such discrimination in other facets of our lives. Even a storm on Election Day can keep vote totals down while pushing up the prospects of well-funded candidates and special interest groups who can get out the vote and transport their supporters to the polls.
To update our voting habits, we should learn from other ways we have modernized our lives. We can bank by computer, automated teller machine and telephone. We can order products, make travel arrangements, participate in auctions and, as stockholders, vote by proxy -- all online. With just a telephone and a credit card, we can buy goods costing thousands of dollars without leaving home.
Why can't we use such technology for voting? While fraud is always a possibility, added safeguards, such as a confidential pin number for each registered voter and other security measures, can be built into a system for voting by telephone or computer.
Also, we have the technology that allows for fingerprint identification over the computer.Besides, the many added numbers of participating voters will counter any skewing of results by abuses, which are still possible even with our present system. Remember the last presidential election in Florida?
It's time we encourage more voting by updating our system of balloting and enabling voters to make greater use of the computer.
M. Hirsh Goldberg is a public relations and political consultant who has been involved in numerous election campaigns and has served as press secretary to former Baltimore Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin and former Gov. Harry R. Hughes.