Would you like to know before you cast your ballot whether your favorite candidate is the kind who would body slam a reporter?
Careful — I’m not asking whether you support or oppose body slamming reporters, just whether you would like to know this before voting. (But please, let me put on a bike helmet and strap a pillow to my back first, if you don’t mind.)
Montana’s recent special election kerfuffle, in which a last-minute bit of bad behavior may have been negated by ballots already in the mail, has made even ardent vote-by-mail advocates swallow hard.
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“It’s given us all a little pause,” Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox told me on Wednesday. Cox, whose office supervises elections in the state, has been a big supporter of the mail-in balloting movement that has swept parts of Utah and much of the rest of the nation.
He still is a fan, mainly because, “I know this (Montana situation) is a worst case scenario, and one of the things I feel strongly about is that it’s never good to legislate for the worst case scenario.”
In other words, candidates aren’t likely to roam the countryside from now on looking for journalists to attack. I appreciate that optimism, considering 22 people so far have signed up to run for Utah’s third congressional district seat in a special election Nov. 7, and there aren’t that many of us here to slam around.
So much for the worry, proposed by some on the left end of the political spectrum, that conservatives will use Montana as an argument to do away with early voting. Utah, at least, is one conservative state where access to voting, including same-day registration in many counties, has been embraced.
That doesn’t mean voter turnout here is anything to brag about, but that’s a different column for a different time.
Democracy, freedom and open governance always have required tradeoffs. We tacitly acknowledge some criminals go free because we won’t tolerate the kind of totalitarian state that would rob us of due process. We apparently are willing to run the risk that some terrorists might be harder to catch because we don’t want our phones tapped (although that one is harder to gauge).
And, if we want easier access to the ballot box, we agree to risk voting before knowing about last-minute body slams.
In Montana, CNN reported the Secretary of State’s office received many calls from people wanting to know whether they could change their mailed-in votes after the Republican candidate for the state’s lone House seat, Greg Gianforte, allegedly attacked a reporter.
They couldn’t, and Gianforte won the special election. A total of 357,596 mail-in ballots were distributed. Nearly three-quarters of those were returned before the incident occurred.
Would it be possible to devise a system that did allow people to change their votes right up to the end? The short answer is no.
“Unfortunately, there isn’t a way to do that yet,” Cox said. If people flooded their county elections offices demanding to change their mailed-in ballots, workers would face an enormous task locating them. Then they would face the larger question of whether they were violating the voter’s right to a secret ballot, presuming most of those people would be deciding to vote against the candidate who had done a bad thing.
Only online voting would allow people to change votes easily. But designing a safe and secure online voting system remains as feasible as designing a perpetual motion machine.
Cox reminded me there is no such thing as a perfect voting system. He also said many vote-by-mail Utahns wait until the last minute to cast their ballot, eliminating the chance they will miss a last-minute body slam.
That offers some comfort.
For the upcoming special election, only the parts of the Third District that lie in Salt Lake County will allow votes by mail, further reducing the risks. Utah County still has an old-fashioned Election Day.
Even so, it’s sobering to remember that plenty of politicians have waited until they were safely on the other side of an oath and clothed in power before revealing their darker selves. No system can protect us from that.