Politics & Other Mistakes: Absence makes the election grow healthier

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“Absentee” is an ugly word. It turns other harmless words into nasty epithets.

Absentee landlord. Absentee parent. Absentee owner.

Absentee candidate for governor Paul LePage.

When it comes to verbiage, it doesn’t get much worse.

For a term with the relatively neutral meaning of “not present,” that’s a harsh fate. It’s time absentee was redeemed. Oddly enough, COVID-19 provides the perfect opportunity.

No matter where you stand on the controversies surrounding social distancing and shelter-in-place orders, there’s one thing we can all agree on: There’s nothing better than a local brewery that delivers beer right to your door.

Oops, sorry. I got distracted by the beer-mobile that just pulled into my driveway.

The real thing we can all agree on is that there’s no good reason to risk infecting ourselves or others in the process of performing our civic duty. When primary Election Day rolls around in July, you don’t want to be inhaling the fumes in your local polling place. Not only could there be coronavirus, mildew, and flatulence in the air, you could also get slapped with a lien for unpaid property taxes.

Best to ride out the election from the comfort of home, particularly now that the beer delivery has arrived.

Which brings us back to absentee. Under Maine law, there’s no need to go anywhere near a germy ballot box. Every registered voter in the state is entitled to use an absentee ballot.

Isn’t that a lovely term?

Absentee ballots used to be limited to voters who were sick on Election Day, were away on important business or were being held hostage by kidnappers. Those limits were tossed out years ago, and absentee voting has grown to include nearly a third of the ballots cast in the last couple of general elections. This year, it’ll probably be much more.

To receive an absentee ballot, all you have to do is contact your municipal clerk and ask. It’ll be mailed to you promptly, after which you can take your time filling it out, so long as you get it back to the clerk before the polls close on Election Day.

It’s a simple system that’s virtually impervious to any sort of fraud, hacking or other manipulation. So naturally, there are do-gooders who want to mess with it.

Instead of voters opting in by requesting a ballot, progressives want clerks to send absentee ballots to every voter, whether they ask for one or not. This could result in thousands of those documents going astray because the intended recipients have moved, died, or overindulged in home-delivered beer. Clever manipulators could exploit that flaw by gathering up the wayward ballots and using them to tip close elections.

Another not-so-bright idea is to conduct the whole process online, with voters downloading an app that allows them to cast a cyber-ballot. As the FiveThirtyEight blog pointed out, “there’s a laundry list of reasons why this technology isn’t ready for prime time.”

First, nearly 20 percent of Americans don’t have a smartphone. Second, more than 20 million Americans lack access to decent broadband. Third – and most important – there’s no way to make such a system secure. Some weird dude hunkered down in his parents’ basement could intercept millions of votes from unprotected devices, thereby resulting in his avatar from some zombie-apocalypse game winning the election. (This may have happened in the last presidential race.)

None of these drawbacks apply to absentee ballots. They’re secure from Russian hackers, unavailable to domestic terrorists, and safe from contagious viruses.

Get one today. Then spend Election Day at home waiting for the beer truck.

Unmitigated plug: Those readers who can’t get enough of my wit and wisdom should check out The Maine Sportsman, a magazine devoted to hunting, fishing, ATVing, and similar activities. My new column “Outdoors & Other Mistakes” appears there each month, in spite of the fact that I never go outside and know nothing about any of the subjects I’m supposed to be covering. In other words, it’s a lot like this column. Comments on either subject may be emailed to aldiamon@herniahill.net.