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Published: Sunday, 10/24/2010

Voting worth the effort of waiting until Election Day

ELECTION DAY was last Monday and you didn't vote? Not to worry. Today's Election Day, too. Tomorrow also. And the day after that. You've got all kinds of time.

Just like voters in 30 other states, Ohioans now have the right - as columnist George Will once uncharitably described it - to be "slothful" and vote absentee.

The practice of absentee voting was intended as a way to protect the votes of citizens who knew ahead of time they would not be able to get to the polls on the traditional Election Day. That quaint concept has been trampled by the reality of a society in a hurry.

We've made it too easy to perpetuate our culture of laziness. I guess I'm a traditionalist, but I believe voting is a privilege as much as a right, and we ought to expend a bit of effort to do it.

I've voted absentee, but only when I knew I'd be away on Election Day. When I'm not away, which is most of the time, I go to the polls and I get in line with others who evidently believe as I do: that shared governance means at least a shred of shared sacrifice.

How cavalierly we consider our elections and our Election Days. Contrast the indifference of many of our countrymen with the courage of voters in Iraq and Afghanistan who risk injury or death if they show up at the polls.

Here in Ohio, you don't even have to supply a reason for voting absentee. Ohio's "no fault" absentee law is among the nation's most liberal: You request a ballot, you get a ballot. I understand why we've gone down that path: too many elections with embarrassingly low turnouts.

But while standing in line is not my favorite thing - I had my fill of that in the Army - I still believe that we should have to stand up to be counted, not sit on the couch and mail it in.

Where is the commitment? Why must we devalue the ritual that ends with slapping a sticker on your shirt or blouse that declares: "I voted"? All votes are private, but dropping it in the mailbox is a little too anonymous for me.

I have other reasons for waiting until Election Day to vote. I want the benefit of the entire campaign before I make up my mind.

Why would you vote on Sept. 28 - the first day of absentee voting in Ohio this year - only to learn on Oct. 28 that your candidate's statements on the campaign trail don't sound so good anymore? Why mail in your choice early only to find out later there's a skeleton in his or her closet?

It's why many newspapers, including The Blade, traditionally waited until relatively late to offer their endorsements. Back in the day, we always ran our most significant endorsements - our recommendations for the most prominent national and state offices - during the week leading up to Election Day for that very reason. We didn't want to be blindsided by an "October surprise."

However, convenience has trumped tradition. With so many of our readers voting early, endorsements can no longer be put off until the final days leading up to the election.

Absentee ballots and early voting are increasingly common across the American political landscape. Roughly one fourth of the presidential vote two years ago was cast early. Here in Lucas County, more than 63,000 voters voted ahead of time and away from their neighborhood polling place, nearly a third of the 216,000 who voted for president.

For people who struggle with disabilities, absentee voting - let's call it accessible voting- is the only way many of them can vote. I hope they continue doing that. Many Americans also check out of the process early, so weary are they of the often mind-numbing blather of competing campaigns. I get that.

But consider the big picture. These decisions are just too important to rush. Two years ago, Ohioans were voting for vice president and president before Sen. Joe Biden debated Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and before the final two presidential debates between Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain.

We can discount some of those as party loyalists who were going to vote for their man - or woman - come hell or high water. But not all of them.

Besides, there's little evidence that early voting significantly boosts turnout, and wasn't that supposed to be the point? More than 5.6 million Ohioans voted for president in 2004, prior to the adoption of unlimited absentee voting in 2005; that number slipped slightly to 5.5 million in 2008.

In other words, while the percentage of votes cast absentee increased, the overall vote tally didn't.

I'm also enough of a cynic to worry that unlimited and unrestricted absentee voting invites fraud.

Voting in general elections should occur only on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November. It should not be extended as a convenience to those who would prefer to vote at home, as though they were trying to decide between the pepperoni or the mushroom pizza with extra cheese.

The concept of contemplative democracy is getting away from us - to our collective detriment. Absentee elections? I vote no.

Thomas Walton is retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday.

Contact him at:

twalton@theblade.com



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