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Early voting and this election season have raised important questions for Catholics

A republic which produces more votes but fewer people willing to ask questions about the vote itself is not on a healthy path.

(Image: Joshua Woroniecki/Unsplash.com)

Finding broader meaning in election results is the political commentator’s raison d’être. This election has already produced a host of conflicting interpretations. Some of which are quite depressing. We won’t go there. After all, the Feast of Christ the King reminds us that there is only one King and Americans don’t elect Him every fourth November.

But the USCCB has long encouraged Catholics to be engaged in civic life. In their “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the bishops remind us that “responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation.” Their message to Catholics: we are obligated to assess candidates, parties and issues through the lens of Catholic social teaching, educate other Catholics on these concerns, encourage voter participation and make sure that we ourselves vote. This is all very good and appropriate. However, it can leave the impression that election day represents a finish line of sorts. We voted in November and will re-engage again before the next election. In the meantime, we’re good.

Because this year’s election has capped off an exhausting year, this interpretation is powerful and understandable. Given media reports of unprecedented levels of voter participation amidst a pandemic, we might even feel there is cause to celebrate: democracy is flourishing! But make no mistake: this odd – and still ongoing – election season should raise some questions for Catholics. After all, a republic which produces more votes but fewer people willing to ask questions about the vote itself is not on a healthy path.

So before we tuck away our voting experience for another cycle, let’s mull over some things we know about the election process – and specifically early voting – this time around.

First off, it appears that nearly 100 million people voted early in 2020. The pandemic likely accelerated this trend but early voting has been on the rise for some time. Of those voting early this election, only about one third voted in-person and two-thirds voted by mail. This is worth noting – voter authentication presents particular challenges when it comes to mail-in ballots. However, there is not universal agreement among states as to how to address this concern. In fact, the protocol associated with mail-in ballots varies widely.

Whereas most states required voters to request mail-in ballots, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and Washington did not. They were joined by Washington, D.C. in mailing ballots out to all “eligible” voters. If you were registered to vote in those states, you received a mail-in ballot.

States also differ in their policies regarding sending back completed mail-in ballots. Some required completed ballots to be received by election day, others which used the ballot’s postmark as a criterion, counted completed ballots received after election day.

Pennsylvania counted even those completed ballots received after election day without a postmark.

Many states didn’t require the completed mail-in ballot to go through the mail at all – these states employed a system of “drop boxes” in counties throughout their states.

Some states allowed “volunteers” to collect completed ballots from voters and submit them. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, this system known as “ballot harvesting” is legal in 26 states. In 14 of those states, there is no limit placed on the number of ballots any one volunteer can collect and submit.

According to the Stanford/MIT Healthy Elections Project, states also differ on policies regarding signature verification on completed mail-in ballots. Thirty-one states and Washington D.C. require the signature on the mail-in ballot to be compared to a signature on file but others like Wisconsin do not. Even in states where signature verification is required, some like Pennsylvania argue that ballots should still count when the verification fails.

The differences between how states handle mail-in voting do not end there. But just those mentioned would seem to warrant some questions.

How early is too early? Two weeks? One month? Six weeks? Six months? I haven’t heard any early voting advocates express a limiting principle to this policy. They should. After all, in this election cycle, we heard one campaign insist in late September that having a vote on a Catholic, pro-life Supreme Court nominee wouldn’t be right because election voting had already started. Anyone making this argument would seem to be suggesting that any early voting should be limited to a very tight period right before election day.

Should states send mail-in ballots to all registered voters or only to those who have requested them?

Should states require completed mail-in ballots to be received by election day or should they allow for ballots to be counted if received after election day? If after election day, how many days after? Again – what is the limiting principle?

If states decide that the postmark – rather than the date of receipt – is the determinant for acceptability, what about cases where there is no postmark? Is Pennsylvania right – should ballots received after election day without a postmark still be counted?

What about completed ballots deposited in drop boxes? By nature, they don’t have a postmark.

What about the drop boxes themselves? Is putting the ballot in the mail too onerous a burden for those choosing to vote by mail?

What about ballot harvesting? Do the people of our republic support this system for collecting votes? If so, why? And if so, who should be allowed to submit your ballot for you? Anyone? Should that person also be allowed to collect ballots from others? How many ballots should any one person be allowed to “harvest”? An unlimited number? Again – is there a limiting principle?

Do we think all mail-in ballots should require the voter’s signature? Do we think that signature verification should be required and that the ballot should only count if the signature passes verification? Or do we think – as Pennsylvania does – that signature verification sounds good but that completed ballots shouldn’t be disqualified when verification fails?

And here is another one – do we think it is okay for one voter during the same election cycle to participate in two different state’s elections for U.S. senator? This question is especially relevant this year in Georgia’s runoff election scheduled for January 5. For example, a voter could have lived in Michigan on September 24 (when early voting began there) and participated in that state’s tight senate election very narrowly won by Gary Peters (D). The voter could have then moved to Georgia by December 7 (Georgia’s registration date for the run-off) and voted again in that state’s hotly-contested two Senate races which will determine which party controls the Senate. In this case, early voting in a state like Michigan is two and a half-months before the January run-off election in Georgia, leaving more than enough time to create such a situation. Of course, this scenario could involve a vote and a move from any early voting state – Arizona, Nevada, California, etc. In a country that has historically touted “one person, one vote” – what exactly does that mean in today’s age of early voting?

In the lead up to November’s election, big companies including Endeavor, Gap, Target, Patagonia, Snapchat, Spotify, Uber, Bank of America, Google and Twitter led aggressive get-out-the-vote efforts aimed at setting new voter participation records. These companies’ politics are not in debate: a number of them have quite publicly taken positions counter to Catholic social teaching on a wide range of issues involving bathroom laws, abortion and marriage – and have done so cloaked in the language of “corporate social responsibility.” Their get-out-the-vote efforts echo our ruling class’s rallying cry: “the virtue of a society can be measured by how easily people can vote!”

But the early voting process includes making determinations that a truly virtuous society must consider and responsibly address if it is to ensure the integrity of every ballot cast. These big companies may be less interested in this last part. At the end of November, Google-owned YouTube suspended and demonetized One America News Network’s account after the news channel ran numerous stories scrutinizing early voting. Twitter suspended Pennsylvania State Senator Doug Mastriano’s personal account after he led a hearing critical of his state’s early voting process.

This all raises some final questions. While achieving a higher voter participation rate is an easily identifiable end target, is it really the best metric to measure the health of a democratic republic? Or is the extent to which that society encourages and engages in a broad, robust civil debate over public policies and their implications – including those pertaining to voting – a more difficult but perhaps better measure?

And could it be that in the interest of ensuring the former, we are being dissuaded from pursuing the latter?


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About Ronald L. Jelinek, Ph.D. 6 Articles
Ronald L. Jelinek, Ph.D., is a Professor of Marketing at Providence College. The opinions expressed here are his own.

12 Comments

  1. The ancients were correct: democracy based on universal suffrage without any qualification other than age is evil. Whatever guidance the USCCB may give on the matter is irrelevant as they have no competence (much less infallibility) to make correct judgments regarding the regime in which we find ourselves, and their discussion of “duties” is thus based on false premises.

  2. This article raises many valid questions, and I have one more. To what extent should the standards for voting be consistent from state to state? After all, we can see right now that as Georgia goes, the nation will go. Should each state be allowed to set its own rules and regulations no matter how wildly divergent they may be? I don’t have any pat answers for any of these questions, but they deserve to be asked and debated.

    One thing that everyone should find self-evident is that we can’t simply count any and all ballots without making some reasonable effort to determine if it is valid. There have to be ways to ensure the integrity of an election, which means more than that the candidate that someone thinks should win wins.

  3. As Ole “Uncle Joe”{Stalin} said:” It doesn’t matter how many vote.It’s who counts the votes that matter”. Somewhere up above Washington,Jefferson,& Hamilton are crying.For what has become of their beloved country.

  4. I personally don’t vote early, even when I have voted absentee. It seems foolhardy to vote for a candidate prematurely when so many things can happen up to and on election day. I want my vote to count. Or at least have the illusion that it does…

  5. The whole idea of early voting may be a mistake. It’s like telling members of a jury that they can leave the court as soon as their minds are made up, as long as they leave a note telling how they are voting.

  6. Remove motor -voter registration , where a16 yr old is automatically registered in that state as a potential voter on their 18th birthday.
    A lot can happen between 16 and 18 years such as moving out of state.

  7. I have noted with some dismay that over the last few decades an effort has been made to make voting not only “easier” but much more susceptible to fraud. What was the gold standard for the world has become a third world corrupt mess, as this recent election has shown. At this point a STANDARD process for federal elections at least is needed nationwide.There are simply too many variables about who can vote, how late a ballot can be accepted, etc. The problems start with registration, with too many states allowing registration at the DMV, without sufficient proof of eligibility needed. NO ONE should be allowed to vote in a US election without proof of citizenship, a standard being eroded in some blue states which are starting to allow non citizens and illegals to vote in school board and other local elections.This takes away the value of the votes of legitimate citizens. Second, ID should ALWAYS be required to vote. Anyone who objects to that on the basis of “racism” is a liar. ID is required now to cash a check, use a charge card, get on a plane, purchase alcohol,get welfare, enter a hospital or see a doctor. EVERYONE has an ID. If you are too stupid or too lazy to get ID, you should not be voting at all. Any mail in ballot must be REQUESTED and sent to legitimately registered voters ONLY. NO more mass mailing of millions of ballots. Period. Paper ballots should be required to be returned at least a week or two before election day, no “curing” of ballots to be allowed, and states must be required to count those mail in ballots BEFORE election day, to prevent the third world buffoonery we have just witnessed from happening again. I also blame judges who allow themselves to be used by partisan operatives who file complaints when states purge voter rolls periodically of those who are dead or have moved. This is how we get more votes in a county than living residents. Preventing such purging ALWAYS results in fraud, which can be the ONLY point of protesting the purging. . The American people need to know their votes COUNT and nobody is CHEATING. As we have made the process ” easier” for some, the process has become tainted because everyone knows the easier it is to vote, the more safe guards that are removed, the more cheating is happening. ALL OVER the country, not just in swing states. It has to be stopped, immediately. I have little hope for the future of the country if the democrats win those 2 senate seats in Georgia. Pray, and if you live in Georgia,VOTE and stand up for what is right and fair!!

  8. In this election there was no “equal protection under the law.”

    It is a farce that “idiot-thug-Biden” is “president-elect.”

  9. I heard that If 90% of Catholics would vote for Trump because he was pro-life that Trump would win by a landslide. In 2016 a survey said only 45% of Catholics were against abortion but Evangelist was 67% against abortion & voted for Trump in 2016 That must be then that Catholic don’t or are not taught that abortion is a gravest sin & makes voting a one issue thing that must be voted against

  10. You folks are too kind.

    Trump was robbed and we are doing nothing to counter this fraud.

    The courts are a disgrace. Do we need a civil war to drain a corrupt Washington

  11. As we ponder all these questions concerning the 2020 voting process, let’s make two objective factual comments that underlie all of this. 1) This intentionally flawed 2020 voting process was intended to give full advantage to the democrat party. 2) There is little or no concern that Republicans would ever take advantage of voter fraud.

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