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Early Voting Tears America's Civic Fabric

Early Voting Tears America's Civic Fabric

In a society accustomed to Netflix, DVR and video-on-demand, its probably not surprising we’re moving towards elections-on-demand. Today, half the states have started early voting for the November elections. The remaining states will make early voting available over the coming weeks. By Election Day, it is expected that around 35% of voters will have already cast their ballot. The decline of America’s civic tradition of collectively voting on a single day will have a dramatic impact on future campaigns.

Thirty-two states allow in-person early voting within a certain time period. South Dakota, Vermont and Idaho have already started this. Other states will offer this over the coming weeks. In most cases, early voting will end a few days before election day. (A good calendar of early voting can be found here.)

All states allow absentee voting, but in 21 states, voters need an excuse to cast an absentee ballot. They have to show they will be out of town on Election Day or have some other work, family or medical obligation that day. In 27 states, however, anyone can cast an absentee ballot for no explicit reason. Two state, Oregon and Washington, conduct their entire election by mail. There are no polling places at all. (A good map of which states allow absentee and early voting can be found here.)

Unsurprisingly, New England, with its rich history of town halls and civic engagement, has been most resistent to the expanding voting-on-demand. Only Maine and Vermont allow early voting and no-excuse absentee ballots. New Jersey allows no-excuse absentee ballots, but no early voting. Every other state in New England, including New York and Pennsylvania require an excuse for absentee voting and don’t allow early voting. 

I think that’s telling. 

In the last several years, there have been concerted efforts to greatly expand the ability of voters to cast ballots outside of the traditional first Tuesday (after the first Monday) in November. With polling places generally open for about 12 hours, going a few blocks down the street to cast a ballot on a particular day never seemed like a particularly heavy lift to me. It is also a great civic moment, affording us a golden opportunity to teach our children about the benefits and responsibilities of America’s republic and democracy. 

But, in our country now the clear trend is to make absolutely everything easier and more convenient and minimize anything that might be considered “hard.” I’m fine, I guess, with having lost that battle. But, really, do we need over a month of early voting? North Carolina started accepting absentee ballots on September 6th, a full two months before election day. 

In 2008, more than half the voters in Arizona cast early ballots. In Colorado, 79% of voters cast early ballots. In other states, the number of voters casting early ballots is relatively small. A good summary of data from 2008 can be found here. How much of the campaign and national events did these voters miss? Some number of voters in 2008 cast ballots before the financial crisis had its total melt-down. Would that have impacted their vote? 

This year, there are two more jobs reports, a 3rd Quarter GDP preliminary report and countless unknown national and world events before Election Day. There are debates and the ins and outs of the campaign trail, where either candidate could make an election-changing gaffe. None of this new information will be relevant to the voter who has already cast his ballot. Is this really any way to run a democracy?

One probably unintended consequence of such a long period of early voting is that it both increases the amount of money needed to run a campaign and gives yet another leg-up to incumbents or other campaigns with lots of resources. In the past, candidates with fewer resources could still run competitive races by marshaling their funds for a final two-week paid media blitz.  Now, though, a campaign needs resources for a one to two month ad blitz, since voting will be open that entire time period. 

Americans can only stomach so much campaign advertising. Voters are likely already starting to tune out the campaigns, just as down-ballot races and those with limited resources are getting on the airwaves. Its even possible the lengthened campaign window could depress overall voter turnout as voters begin to tune-out the campaigns entirely. 

Practically speaking, most early voting is down by hard-partisans who have already made up their minds on the Presidential ballot. They may not, however, have made up their minds on lesser offices. The huge window of early and absentee voting also opens to door to voting shenanigans. This is too long a topic to address here, but fraud is both more prevalent than liberals admit and less pervasive than conservatives fear. Early voting though certainly makes fraud easier to perpetuate. 

There is no putting the early voting genie back in the bottle. But, it is still worth noting that we’ve lost something in the rush to make voting more convenient. Its also forever changing how campaigns are run, in ways we can’t entirely anticipate. Whatever comes, we asked for it. 

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