Dead voters' ballots should still count

Many freedoms are important to Americans: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from government encroachment on individual liberty. But for many people, one of the most precious is the right to vote.

The question of whose votes get counted and under what circumstances is guaranteed to generate passionate debate. Witness the continuing arguments over new electronic voting systems that leave no paper trail and thus no way to recount the votes by hand.

Now a new question has arisen, the result of the growing trend toward absentee voting and what some states call "early voting." That's not the old joke that advises people to "vote early and often"; it's the opportunity to cast a ballot before Election Day.

Oregon, as is often the case, is ahead of the rest of the country. Every election in the state is now conducted by mail, so every voter has the opportunity to cast a ballot as soon as it arrives, about two weeks before Election Day.

Which raises the question: What happens to that ballot if the voter dies after marking and signing the ballot but before Election Day?

In Oregon, the ballot is counted like any other. But not in some states.

In South Dakota, an 88-year-old woman born before women could vote marked a ballot for Hillary Clinton in that state's Democratic primary. But when she died after her daughter mailed in the ballot, it wasn't counted. South Dakota law says a voter must be qualified — meaning alive — on Election Day.

Arguments can be made on both sides of this question. But we favor counting every ballot that was properly cast, even if the voter who cast it has since expired.

The most likely scenario would involve an elderly person in poor health who marks a ballot from a hospital bed but doesn't survive to see Election Day. Surely that vote is as valid as one cast by a healthy young person.

But that's not the only possibility. What about soldiers serving a war zone overseas who vote by absentee ballot and then are killed in combat? Should their votes be tossed in the trash?

The South Dakota law requiring every voter to be alive on Election Day doesn't hold up to logical scrutiny.

If a voter walks into a polling place, marks a ballot, drops it in the box, walks out and is run over by a bus, that ballot would count because the voter was alive on Election Day, however briefly. But an absentee ballot marked and mailed a week earlier wouldn't count if the voter suffered a fatal heart attack the next day. That's simply unfair.

Oregon's unique system still observes Election Day by requiring that no ballots be counted until the polls close at 8 p.m. But for all practical purposes, Election Day in Oregon is whatever day you mark your ballot. Or, if you prefer, vote-by-mail has effectively made Election Day two weeks long.

That's why Oregon's practice of counting all properly cast ballots is right, and South Dakota's rigid rule is wrong.

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