Voting should be about commitment before convenience

02/15/2013 5:20 PM

03/05/2013 9:59 AM

Voting is a sacred and important civic duty in a democracy that every citizen ought to take seriously.

Nobody really disagrees about that, but there is fevered debate on just how to encourage and improve participation in America’s great, ongoing political experiment.

Do all that’s possible to make it easy to vote? Or, focus on making sure all the votes are counted correctly, even if that requires a little more work on the part of voters?

South Carolina is right in the middle of the discussion. Last year, the state enacted a voter ID law – it has already been used in a few local elections – that is aimed at cracking down on voter fraud, real and imagined. This year, the S.C. Senate is once again rolling out an early voting bill that would give state voters more access to the voting process.

We’ve said in the past that voter ID isn’t a bad idea, even while acknowledging the fact that it is politically driven and that it takes aim at a problem that is, in fact, not much of a problem here just yet. Our basic take: Preventing corruption is a good idea, and it’s not the worst thing to make voters – all voters – work a little harder, be a little more conscientious.

We are of a similar mind when it comes to early voting. We’re not sure it addresses much of an ill – presidential elections produce some long lines at S.C. polls, but most voters really aren’t defeated by having to wait – and we like the excitement and community spirit created by a single Election Day observed by all. We’d hate to lose the latter, and we think the former might be better addressed by technological improvements and better management.

That said, it’s clear that the national trajectory is heading toward a different form of voting, one that is aimed at increasing accessibility and convenience. Technology – we’re imagining smart phone and tablet voting – seems a likely future norm. That’s not here yet, but citizens used to drive-through lanes and online shopping aren’t likely to embrace governments that appear to be lagging behind the times. Early voting is probably a stop on the path to that future.

It’s already in place, in one form or another, in 36 of the 50 states. The vast majority – 29 states – have out and out early voting, in which a limited number of polling places open for a week or more before Election Day. Several more have “no excuse” absentee voting, which means voters can vote absentee without providing a formal excuse, and proof of same, to election officials. The 2012 election in South Carolina was run under a version of this – you might call it the “no reasonable excuse refused” – in which voters voted by absentee ballot based on their stating an excuse that election officials were bound to accept, almost without exception. We thought that was a bad system – it codified a system in which citizens were encouraged to lie to the government – but South Carolinians liked it. About 14 percent voted “absentee” last year, whether actually absent or not.

Nationwide, about a quarter of voters didn’t vote on Election Day, but at some earlier time.

The S.C. Senate bill calls for a 10-day early voting period. Every county would be required to set up at least one per election. The max would be five.

The prospects for passage may not be great. The S.C. House has repeatedly voted down early voting plans in recent years. But recent sparring between House and Senate leaders suggests a compromise, based on a reduction in the length of the early voting period and other details, might be possible.

This is not the best news for the state, but it could be worse.

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