Early Voting, the good, the not-so-good, and the ugly

Yet another study confirms previous studies that Early Voting Reduces Turnout: Election Laws, Mobilization, and Turnout The Unanticipated Consequences of Election Reform <read>

From the abstract:

State governments have experimented with a variety of election laws to make voting more convenient and increase turnout . The impact s of these reforms va y in surprising ways, providing insight into the mechanisms by which states can encourage or reduce turnout. Our theory focuses on mobilization and distinguishes between the direct and indirect effects of election laws. We conduct both aggregate and individual level statistical analyses of voter turnout in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections . The results show that election day registration has a consistently positive effect on turnout while the most popular reform – early voting – is actually associated with lower turnout when it is implemented by itself . We propose that early voting has created negative unanticipated consequences by reducing the civic significance of elections for individuals and altering the incentives for political campaigns to invest in mobilization.

Instead of reading the paper, we suggest the authors’ article summarizing their findings: The Case Against Early Voting <read>

The authors actually contend more reasons for concern than a bit of reduced turnout:

As the Presidential Commission on Election Administration notes in its new report, “no excuse” early voting — meaning it is open even to those who don’t qualify for an absentee ballot — has grown rapidly in recent decades in what the commission called a “quiet revolution.” In the 2012 election, almost one-third of ballots were cast early — more than double those cast in 2000 — and 32 states now permit the practice, allowing citizens to vote an average of 19 days before Election Day.

The commission rightly notes that early voting has its advantages for individual voters — not just avoiding long lines, but in many cases also getting to vote on weekends without having to miss work or school. But early voting run amok is bad for democracy. The costs to collective self-governance — which the report refers to only in passing, in a single sentence — substantially outweigh the benefits. Instead of expanding the practice, we should use this moment as an opportunity to establish clear limits on it before it becomes the norm.

Why? For all its conveniences, early voting threatens the basic nature of citizen choice in democratic, republican government. In elections, candidates make competing appeals to the people and provide them with the information necessary to be able to make a choice. Citizens also engage with one another, debating and deliberating about the best options for the country. Especially in an age of so many nonpolitical distractions, it is important to preserve the space of a general election campaign — from the early kickoff rallies to the last debates in October — to allow voters to think through, together, the serious issues that face the nation.

The integrity of that space is broken when some citizens cast their ballots as early as 46 days before the election, as some states allow. A lot can happen in those 46 days. Early voters are, in essence, asked a different set of questions from later ones; they are voting with a different set of facts. They may cast their ballots without the knowledge that comes from later candidate debates

In reality, the authors apparently are not against all early voting, just long early voting periods:

Moreover, there are other ways of achieving some of the benefits of early voting, such as old-fashioned absentee ballots or setting up more polling places. Even a limited few-days-early voting period could convey most of the advantages of the practice while limiting the most severe democratic costs.

Early voting is a matter of degree: Even Election “Day” lets people cast ballots at different times. But at the moment, there is no upper bound at all on the growing practice, and the president’s commission made no mention of such an option. With the group’s report opening a new round of discussion over voting policy, now is the time to consider whether the “quiet revolution” of early voting has gone too far.

For an alternative view, we have a critique from Doug Chapin: So Yesterday: “The (Rather Outdated) Case Against Early Voting” <read>

There are, to be sure, evidence-based arguments that early voting isn’t the turnout machine it’s often sold to be – indeed, Barry Burden and three colleagues have a provocative new paper that suggests that early voting actually DECREASES turnout in the absence of opportunities for same-day registration. There is also a growing realization of the need to do cost-benefit analyses of lengthy voting periods and identify the best time to open the process when significant numbers of voters are ready to take advantage of early voting.

But the argument that early voting deprives voters of an opportunity to cast ballots in a simultaneous expression of public opinion “at a particular moment” is rather outdated given the current state of the field. That sense is amplified by the authors’ recommendations for fixing the problem via “old-fashioned absentee ballots or setting up more polling places” – options which are unattractive or unavailable to many election officials.

For Connecticut, we favor in-person early voting, if we are willing to pay for the convenience. We oppose no-excuse absentee voting for security reasons. 

  • For many of the reasons pointed out by the authors of the Politico article, we favor a relatively short period of early voting, perhaps a week or ten day period, not necessarily every day, with a variety of convenient times during the day, evenings, early morning and weekends.
  • In Connecticut, with local election management, such early voting could be expensive, especially for small towns that have a single polling place on election day. There are some compromises and and alternatives: Provide for in-person absentee-like voting, which would has the security benefits of in-person early voting and some of the disenfranchising aspects of absentee voting; bite the bullet and do for voting what we have done for probate: Regionalize, Professionalize, Economize.
  • We are opposed to no-excuse absentee voting because of the known and proven fraud issues. We point out that its long period does not reduce the concerns with a long in-person early voting period.
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