Choosing our metaphors wisely

I like the story but I don’t like the metaphor used in this week’s Electionline.

Mindy Moretti writes:

Like alcohol during prohibition, it turns out that many Ohio voters actually liked many of the elections procedures recently banned by the state legislature.

The point is well-taken; the Ohio Legislature eliminated times and places for voting that we taken advantage of by 234,000 citizens in Franklin County alone.  Like the changes being made in a number of other states, including Florida, Texas, and Georgia, legislators argue that these changes will save money.  The fiscal impact note accompanying the bill, however, provides only slim evidence:

This provision shortens the amount of time for in-person absentee voting, which could reduce some costs for county boards of elections for operating these absent voter locations.

The bill also banned clerks from mailing absentee ballot applications to all registered voters and paying for return postage, which will obviously save money on mailing:

The bill prohibits a board of elections from mailing any unsolicited applications for absent voters’ ballots, and instead specifies that a board only mail an absent voter’s ballot application to a voter who has requested  one.  Additionally,  the bill prohibits  a board of elections that mails an absent voter’s ballot application from prepaying the return postage for that application or for the absent voter’s ballot.   Instead, under the bill the voter is responsible for paying the postage costs.  This change will result in some reduction in mailing expenses, although not all counties pay for the postage for absent voter’s ballots or applications.  Franklin County does pay these costs, and typically sends unsolicited absent voters’ applications to individuals that have historically opted to vote by absent voter’s ballot.  During the 2010 general election, the county spent approximately $115,000 for mailing approximately 160,000 absent voter’s ballots for the 2010 general election.

But wait–will this save money for the state or just for the citizens of Franklin County?  And if it’s the citizens of Franklin County, why is the state legislature poking their nose into the county’s fiscal affairs?  And it’s not even clear if this will really save money on conducting elections (not just on mailing ballots).  After all, many of those vote-by-mail ballots are going to be cast in person at an early voting location or at the polling place on Election Day.

I was interviewed for the Ohio story and had a mixed response to the changes.  I don’t regret shortening the period for early voting; I am convinced that most early voters will adapt, and those voters who cast ballots four weeks out will happily cast ballots two weeks out.  I am much more concerned, however, about banning satellite early voting, which Bob Stein and others have shown increases turnout and hold no security risks.

But back to Mindy: while I agree with the tenor of the story, is this really like “alcohol during prohibition”?  After all, it’s not like we expect to see election speak easies pop up in Franklin County where Al Capone gladly takes your early ballot, for a small fee of course!

Whatever our metaphor, the lesson is clear: if you give voters more options, some will choose those options.  And they’ll choose them because they like them.  If you then take those options away, some voters will be unhappy.  It’s a choice that clerks face every election.  It’s one thing, however, for a writer to take creative license; its another thing to pass legislation.

What’s often lacking legislative debates over elections is careful, systematic analysis of the costs and benefits of the changes. Instead, legislators rely on anecdotes and ill-chosen metaphors, and clerks end up trying to manage the unintended consequences.