Scoppe: How much would you give up to vote? And should you have to?

Associate EditorNovember 6, 2012 

Reprinted from Nov. 13, 2008

Columbia, SC — I GOT UP an hour early on Election Day, foolishly thinking I could avoid the crowd if I showed up at my polling place a few minutes before 7. Wrong. At 6:50 a.m., the closest place to park was three long blocks away, and several people weren’t even driving, but walking from their homes. I went to the office an hour early.

I tried again at 11, hoping to beat the lunch crowd. This time I snagged a parking spot someone had just vacated, within a block; I walked into the school building, looked at the line snaking three times through the gym, up the stairs, down a hall and who knows how far around that corner, and went back to work.

A bit before 4, I tried again.

I had no idea what to expect — or what I would do. Was I willing to wait an hour, two, more, to vote in a presidential election in which I would be perfectly happy with either winner, U.S. Senate and House races whose outcomes were not in doubt, legislative, County Council and countywide non-races where the incumbents were unopposed? (“You need to set an example,” my priest had admonished me on Sunday when I mused about doing the unthinkable — not voting.) I didn’t have to answer the question: This time, the street was virtually empty; the line had evaporated, and only two other voters were in sight. More than half the time I spent in my polling place was chatting with poll workers, who reported that the crowds started dissipating around 2.

Fortunately, my polling place is a three-minute drive from my office, and I was free to come and go as needed, come in late or leave early.

But what if I lived far enough from work to make multiple trips impractical? What if I had to punch the clock — and have my pay docked (or worse) if I came in late, disappeared in the middle of the day or left early? What if I was a parent who had to pay someone extra to keep the kids while I stood in line? Would I have voted? Could I have voted?

Those questions are being echoed by some lawmakers, as they push to have South Carolina join the 32 states that allow early voting . I’m still thinking through how I feel about this; all I can say for sure is that I oppose U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn’s proposal to have the Congress order South Carolina to adopt early voting .

My editor Brad Warthen argues that anyone unwilling to be inconvenienced doesn’t need to be voting — an elitist, paternalistic attitude that I normally would share, because many people who don’t want to be inconvenienced by voting also don’t want to be inconvenienced by paying enough attention to cast informed votes.

But is that really the issue here? Is the question really whether some people are willing to be inconvenienced, or is it in fact whether they are willing to give up part of their paycheck, or even their job, in order to wait in line two hours to vote? That’s a disturbing possibility made worse because the people most likely to suffer financially from missing work also tend to be the ones who can least afford it. Should hourly workers effectively have to pay for the right to vote while those of us in comfortable offices don’t?

S.C. law allows people to cast an absentee ballot if they meet one of 13 criteria, among them “For reasons of employment will not be able to vote on election day.” That does cover people who have to leave for work by 7 a.m. and don’t get home until 7 p.m. But not those who have to be at work by 10, and don’t know until Election Day that they won’t be able to make it and also vote.

I have a friend who has no qualms about voting from home by absentee ballot — you can request the ballot by mail and mail it back — even though he has no legitimate reason to do so. Indications are that he had plenty of company this year. Is that really what we want?

A free society depends on respect for the rule of law, and we undermine that respect when we maintain a law — any law — that is well-known and widely disregarded, and make no effort to enforce it. Election officials say they don’t check up on absentee voters to make sure they’re telling the truth, and frankly, there’s no way they could. When enforcement is not feasible and violations are widespread, there’s a strong argument for changing the law.

The best reason I’ve heard not to change the law is cost. Wide-open early voting , where people could cast a ballot for days or weeks in advance at their local polling place — or even just at one of several places set up especially for that purpose — would be quite expensive. So would the alternative way of reducing waits: buying more voting machines and hiring more poll workers. But it would cost relatively little -- although by no means nothing — to let everyone vote absentee, either in person or by mail.

Opponents raise unconvincing arguments about fraud and intimidation. Even less convincing is the sentimentalist notion (and I believe this is Brad’s core concern) that standing in line on Election Day with your neighbors is an essential part of our democracy. Slightly more convincing — but not by a lot — is the contention that ballots shouldn’t be cast before the election is over, because voters might miss important developments in the closing days; that’s a risk they can choose to take, or not.

There might well be other reasons to oppose early voting , and I’m still enough of a traditionalist and an elitist to be convinced. But voting is a fundamental right in our society — indeed, it is the cornerstone of our government — and so opponents need to come up with something better than they have so far to overcome the argument that making people wait for hours in line in the middle of a work week puts an unreasonable, and for some unbearable, burden on many of our fellow citizens.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571.

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