Early Voting: A Game Changer?

The process for electing a President is undergoing a sea change. The cause is early and absentee voting. Absentee voting has been here since colonial times. Early voting began more than a quarter century ago, but has recently been gaining momentum. At present, 32 states and the District of Columbia allow early voting with limited restrictions. (Of course, all fifty states allow absentee ballots.) In 2000, roughly 16% of all votes cast in the Presidential election were done early or by absentee ballot. By 2004, that had increased to 23% and to 31% in 2008, according to a detailed article on the subject in last Friday’s New York Times. Expectations for this year are that up to 40% of all votes will be cast before November 6. For a nation whose electoral and primary process seems interminable, (while providing incredible bounty to the media and advertising industries,) we are rushing the end. Less than three weeks after the conclusion of the Democratic Convention, Iowa voters headed to the polls – and did so six days before the first Presidential debate!

As an indication of this change, 70% of Colorado voters in 2008 voted early, as did 67% of those in Nevada and 52 % in Florida. The Times reports that in Iowa Mr. Obama received fewer votes on Election Day than did John McCain in 2008. Nevertheless, Mr. Obama won the state. An Iowa law, which is unique at the moment, states, according to the Times, that 100 signatures can petition election officials to create a temporary voting location aimed at serving a specific constituency. Voting booths can be put up in restaurants and retail malls. As one example, Jeff Zeleny, the Times reporter, wrote that when Mrs. Obama visited the campus of the University of Northern Iowa last Friday, her chief task was not to give a speech, but to “ask supporters to cast their ballots on the spot, a few steps away at a voting site requested by the campaign and approved by election officials.”

“Oregon,” according to Michael McDonald of George Mason University in an interview on NPR, “was actually the first state to run a statewide mail ballot election. And they were the first state to permanently adopt that as their form of voting.” As in the State of Washington today, Oregon has no polling areas or booths. All voting is done by mail. In contrast, early voting on the East Coast is in-person at special polling locations.” Last week, for example, I received an unsolicited application form to vote absentee from the State of Connecticut.

Absentee ballots, as opposed to early voting, have been used for years. They were available in colonial America when it was difficult for anyone traveling to return home to vote. Of course it was only white, male property owners that could then vote. During the Civil War, absentee votes from soldiers helped win the reelection of Abraham Lincoln in 1864. Afterwards, most of the laws were repealed, only to be reinstated during World War I. The Soldier Voting Act of 1942 represented the first legislation guaranteeing military members a vote in Presidential and Congressional elections during war time. In 1955, Congress passed the Federal Voting Assistance Act of 1955, allowing and assisting military members, federal employees overseas, and other U.S. citizens associated with the military to vote when away from their voting residences. In 1986, the Uniformed Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act was enacted. That law ensured that U.S. citizens living outside the United States had the right to register and vote in federal elections. The law also allowed for a back-up ballot to be used when the state ballot did not arrive in time. While the internet allows individuals to register online, ballots must be returned by “snail mail.”

Early, or “no excuse” voting, as it is also known, is another matter. Individuals are allowed to vote in their own district, generally between four and fifty days prior to the election. While Democrats have been more aggressive in seeking early voters, both Parties have been gunning for them. University and college students are widely sought by Democrats, as they tend to be lackadaisical voters, especially in a year such as this when enthusiasm for both candidates is relatively low. Getting them early, or whenever they can, i.e. Mrs. Obama in Iowa last week, means attracting votes from those not inclined to trudge to the polls on Election Day.

Early voting is common in many other jurisdictions, including countries such as Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand and others. The concept is relatively new in the United States. Texas was among the first states, passing a bill in 1987 allowing citizens to vote early at one of each county’s permanent election office branch locations.

Politicians and poll watchers are still trying to understand the ramifications of the practice. Certainly, it makes it easier for someone who knows they will be away and wants to vote, but absentee ballots can be used in such instances. On the other hand, it could lead to coercion and/or voting for emotional, rather than deliberative reasons. In a study on the subject eight years ago, the Congressional Quarterly suggested that early voting had limited affect on voter turnout and tended to attract the most partisan voters. That, though, might have changed in the past eight years. There is little question in my mind that an emotional appeal, especially to young voters, can encourage them to vote, especially when the polling booths are located right nearby. I worry that it will encourage more demagogic behavior on the part of candidates and emotive responses on the part of the electorate. Early voting precludes the opportunity to change one’s mind. And, one does have to question the wisdom of someone voting before listening to the debates. It is estimated that this year’s debates will attract 50 million viewers, more than a third of the almost 130 million people who voted in the 2008 election. Early voting does increase the costs of already outrageously expensive campaigns, and certainly may diminish the value of the debates – the only chance we get to see the candidates going head-to-head.

In my personal opinion, it seems wise for a voter to wait as long as possible before pulling the lever, but if voting early is one’s only option, then go for it. I suspect it will not be long before we vote on-line from wherever we might be, and that might eliminate the need to vote early. It seems sad to lose the trip to the local school or firehouse in order to give up one’s name and address and then be directed to the curtained booth, a sharing of a communal experience. Over the past two hundred-plus years of our country, many changes have been made, including the concept of the secret ballot, which did not become universal until 1892. Early voting may not be a “game changer,” but it is sure to have unanticipated consequences, and I suspect that even more changes will come. But will they cause voters to be better informed as to their choices? Will these changes cause candidates to be more open and honest? I regretfully think not.


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