WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Just a few short weeks ago, I was in Afghanistan as the people of that war-torn, impoverished country prepared to cast a presidential ballot for the first time in history. On Oct. 9, Election Day, entire families braved gunfire, mines and intimidation -- often walking miles just so that a father and mother could cast a vote for their first democratically elected head of state.
Even the most cynical spectator had to acknowledge that "Voting Day" was a celebratory event for the people of Afghanistan. And this week, there was more festivity, as Afghani election officials, closely monitored by international observers, confirmed that Hamid Karzai had won by a landslide. Barely mentioned was another cause for celebration: More than 70 percent of Afghanistan's registered voters had cast a ballot. Too bad we won't have that kind of turnout here.
Next Tuesday, Americans will have the opportunity to trek a few blocks -- or at most a few miles in a car -- to a local polling place and pull a lever, punch a button, touch a screen or mark an electronically scanned ballot to record their choice for president of the United States. And, if all goes as hoped, later that night there will be revelry in the victor's camp. But there won't be any celebrations like those in Afghanistan -- where the people rejoiced simply because they had participated in one of the most singular of group activities: gathering at a particular time and place to cast a secret ballot for their leader. Here in America, we're far too sophisticated for such simple pleasures.
On Nov. 2, millions of eligible American voters won't even bother to cast a ballot -- and even many of those who do won't be doing so at a polling place. The old-fashioned, one-day voting system is fading -- like an old Norman Rockwell print left too long in the sun.
"People today have vastly busier and more complicated lives than in past generations," said Dick Gephardt, so "we (should) change our election laws to make voting more convenient." Policymakers have responded to the challenge. Today, Americans can cast ballots by mail, over the Internet, in-person (early) and in-person (on Election Day). Voters are utilizing these alternative methods en masse. Experts estimate that 25 percent to 30 percent of voters will have cast their ballots before the polls open on Tuesday, in part because 27 states allow citizens to request absentee ballots for any reason. In Oregon, residents don't even have to ask -- citizens can only vote absentee.
But these "vote early" alternatives can increase the possibilities for fraud. In Iowa, "ballot chasers" are already walking door-to-door collecting absentee ballots, and though they are not supposed to pressure voters toward or against a candidate, there is no check of a poll worker by the opposite party. Nor is there oversight to ensure that the "ballot chasers" actually deliver the collected ballots.
Though voting in America has never been easier, politicians insist that it must be made even more convenient. When Congress designated Election Day as the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, the United States was still an agrarian society. Farmers, busy planting and harvesting during the spring and summer months, could best afford time to vote in November. And since many voters in the 1800s had to travel over a day to get to the polls, Congress specified Tuesday as Election Day, so that their constituents would not have to begin their journeys on Sunday.
For Americans, modern transportation has all but eliminated an Election Day commute of more than a few minutes, but most people around the world don't have it so easy. In Afghanistan, over 8 million voters exercised their right to vote for the first time, some standing in lines for three to four hours, others trudging through snow a foot deep.
Women in Kunduz refused to return home even when Jihadists detonated a bomb a few hundred feet away. In Iraq, a schoolteacher used $800 from the U.S. Agency for International Development to conduct a one-day, town council election in his village of 35,000. Now, the residents are represented by 10 council members of their choice, instead of anointed Baath Party officials.
Fledgling democracies such as Iraq and Afghanistan have learned a lesson we seem to take for granted: Single-day elections are the surest way of ensuring that the people have the latest information -- and that their will is measured. Not so here. In 2002, Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone received thousands of votes after he was killed in a pre-Election Day plane crash and replaced on the ballot by Walter Mondale. In this 2004 presidential election, voters in Maine and Iowa began casting ballots even before the first presidential debate. And yet, many of those with a valid reason for voting absentee -- like the men and women of our armed forces serving overseas -- seem to have problems even getting an absentee ballot.
This week, I received an email from a Marine stationed at Al Qaim, Iraq -- a dusty, dangerous outpost along the Syrian border. He wrote: "We were given absentee ballot forms to mail in and were supposed to get a ballot in return. Well, it hasn't gotten here yet, and it doesn't look like our votes will get counted. I am angry about that."
He has a right to be. Instead of worrying about how to make voting "easier" for those who would otherwise have an easy time voting, our political "leaders" ought to focus on how to guarantee the right to vote to those who are fighting to give that right to others -- the men and women of our armed forces.