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Unsupervised voting

While self-appointed elections watchdogs are barking their warnings about touch screen voting, they are diverting attention from a real threat to an honest outcome _ the manipulation of absentee ballots. The rules governing absentee voting have been eased throughout the country, and more voters are casting their ballots in that manner. Yet the process is only loosely controlled in many states, and the opportunity for fraud is real.

In the past four years, 15 states have launched criminal investigations into absentee voting, the New York Times reported. In Ohio, an election worker switched the votes of nursing home residents, while in West Virginia absentee ballots were swapped for flasks of whiskey. The race for mayor of East Chicago, Ind., was decided by absentee votes, but the result was thrown out after dozens of city residents admitted they sold their votes for an offer of a political job.

Florida has had its own problems with absentee voting. During the 2000 presidential election, the elections supervisors in Martin and Seminole counties let Republican Party officials correct absentee requests from Republican households so that the ballots wouldn't be voided. Those votes were more than enough to change the outcome. The 1997 Miami mayoral election was reversed after a judge threw out all absentee ballots because the process was so marred by fraud.

None of that has discouraged the practice, however, and absentee voting is on the rise. Pinellas County is probably typical. The Pinellas elections office already has about 36,000 requests for absentee ballots, more than twice the number sought at this point in the 2000 and 2002 elections.

Some voters have turned to hand-marked absentee ballots because the campaign to discredit touch screens has made them wary of voting machines. Also, Florida has made it easier _ you don't need a reason to vote absentee or a witness to your signature, and anyone can help you with the process. It is common for a political party or other campaign operative to provide a voter with an absentee ballot application and even to deliver the completed ballot to the elections office. Up to four days before an election, any individual can pick up absentee ballots for family members and two unrelated voters with written authorization. As long as the ballot is returned with the necessary information and a valid signature, it will be accepted.

In fact, the political parties wage sophisticated absentee voting campaigns. For example, the Republican Party recently mailed absentee ballot applications that were already filled out with the necessary information. All the voters have to do is sign the cards and drop them in the mail to get a ballot. The parties like the certainty of absentee voting among targeted groups rather than the challenge of having to get their constituents to the polls on Election Day.

There is nothing wrong with that practice, but the ease of voting absentee carries with it risks, particularly when the vulnerable elderly are involved. Even a voter suffering from dementia cannot be denied a ballot unless ruled incompetent by a judge. And it is common for nursing homes to request stacks of absentee ballots for their residents. The integrity of that process is often left to nursing home officials, although Orange County Elections Supervisor Bill Cowles offers a useful service, sending teams from his office to oversee nursing home voting. That should become a common practice throughout the state.

What happens between the mailing of absentee ballots and their return to the elections office is largely beyond the control of supervisors. Florida has made good progress in improving its elections practices since 2000, but in a close election, even a small number of fraudulent absentee ballots could influence the outcome. Now that early voting gives Florida residents access to voting machines up to 15 days before an election, we shouldn't have to rely as much on absentee ballots. The Legislature should tighten the absentee voting process to avoid abuses.