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The Vote: The State of the Absentee Ballot

Christopher Chen-Lumachrome/Flickr

University at Albany sophomore Jamie Zeno isn’t sure his absentee ballot was counted in last year’s presidential election. He’s from the Upstate New York County of Chenango, between Binghamton and Utica.

"I registered to vote back home because I was working on a campaign for county judge," Zeno says. "On registration forms it says I'm an inactive voter. But as someone who is very politically active, I would vote every chance I could get. I submitted the absentee ballot, I know they received it, but I'm still not sure to this day if it was opened."

That’s not the satisfying feeling you expect after doing your civic duty during a highly anticipated presidential election. And Jamie says he wasn’t the only student to experience doubt over his or her vote.

"I know one person last year who went back home," Zeno said. "He lives west of Binghamton and he had to go by bus, so it was an all-day trip to cast his ballot, because he wanted to vote in his local election but knew his vote wouldn't be counted if he went by absentee ballot."

That’s a lot of effort just to cast a vote. But it also casts a bit of a shadow on the process of absentee ballot voting, which can often be a confusing process, especially for students.

Northeastern University senior Justin Bensan says he would encourage his fellow students to forgo the absentee ballot route altogether and register to vote in the district where they live on campus.

"Most of your life interations, whether it be going to class or going to work, you're usually touched more by the municipal-level government," Bensan says. "So I argue that since you're using the services in your local area, that's where you should have your voice, and that's where you should register to vote."

Yet a study conducted after the 2008 presidential election at Northwestern University in Illinois showed that a majority of students going to school out of state chose to vote by absentee ballot in their home state. Northwestern University professor Michael Peshkin ran the study, one of the few of its kind.

"We found two-thirds of the students wanted to vote in their home state and one third wanted to vote in their college state," Peshkin said.

Peshkin launched the Student Vote Project, which is now merged with the UVoteProject at Northwestern’s Center for Civic Engagement. Both are an effort to help students register to vote—either absentee or at the polls, whichever is their preference.

"Two-thirds of students choose to vote in their home state I think because they just feel like a resident of that state," Peshkin argues. "They came from there and they've only been away for a year, two years, three years, and that's their preference."

Absentee voter registration drives have the added challenge of dealing with 50 states, each with 50 different processes for registering. Peshkin says that sets up barriers that discourage a lot of students from registering or even voting once they do register.

"One of the worst is right adjacent to us in Michigan, where a fair number of our students  come from," Peshkin said. "The first time you vote there you have to vote in person or apply for an absentee ballot in person. So if you come from Michigan, and you're a freshman and you want to vote back in Michigan, in your first month on campus, you would have to go back to Michigan to prove yourself."

But it’s not just out of state folks—students or otherwise—who are electing to vote absentee these days. The number of absentee ballot applications submitted this year to New York’s Clinton County Board of Elections from three wards in the city of Plattsburgh has risen about 400 to 500 percent since the last city council election.

For some of the candidates, however, that has raised a red flag. Republican and Independent party candidate Mike Drew is running for city council in Plattsburgh’s Ward 2.

"The more I dug into it, the college, which is in my ward and Ward 3," Drew says, "there are about 60 absentee applications just from college dorms, and every one of them has checked that they're going to be out of the area Tuesday the 5th, which is Election Day and it's in the middle of the semester."

Many states have no-excuse absentee ballot voting, whereby voters don’t need a reason to apply for one. But in New York, voters have to provide an excuse for why they are voting absentee—they must be out of the county, have a illness or disability that prevents them from getting to the polls, be a caretaker of someone who is ill or disabled, or be in prison or awaiting a trial.

It’s not illegal to hand out absentee ballot applications. Drew’s opponent in the race for a city council seat, Michael Kelly, has publicly denied anyone is handing out ballot applications on his behalf.

But Drew says he’s worried that there is some fraud afoot with the dramatic increase in absentee ballot applications. He sent a note to Plattsburgh students living in the dorms in Ward 2 warning them to be wary of any potential voter fraud.

Absentee ballot fraud has been documented several times in the Northeast in the past few years. In 2009, forged ballots in a primary election in Troy, New York led to an investigation of a housing authority employee who was processing absentee ballots for people who no longer resided in the city. And more recently in Bridgeport, the Connecticut Citizen Action Group raised an alarm about ballot abuse in advance of the city’s Board of Education primary after dozens of citizens called in complaints.

But according to absentee ballot voter advocates, any potential fraud committed with absentee ballots has no more dishonesty than fraud committed at the polls. Debra Cleaver is the executive director of the Long Distance Voter, a website dedicated to helping voters sort through the process of registering for an absentee ballot.

"There are people who have concerns about absentee ballot fraud," says Cleaver. "I do not share those concerns. There are so many safeguards in place."

Voting by mail has become the norm for Western states like Oregon and Washington, where upwards of 80 percent of the population sends in ballots. Polling places are few and far between, and voter satisfaction is high. California also sees high mail-in voter turnout, and offers the option to voters to become a permanent vote-by-mail voter.

Cleaver says from the traffic she sees on Longdistancevoter.com, the number of Americans seeking absentee ballots is steadily climbing.

"I think more people are aware of absentee ballot voting. An increasing number of states are offering no-excuse absentee ballot voting which I think makes voting more convenient for people. I think we're going to see this continuing trend."

A future where everyone will vote by actual mail may not be on the horizon yet. Especially if the nation’s youngest voters, like UAlbany sophomore Jamie Zeno, continue to push for on-campus voting.

"With the new age of internet," Zeno says, "I would say most students don't even know where a mailbox is on campus." 

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