Researchers: Early Voting alone DECREASES turnout

Op-Ed by researchers in the New York Times: Voting Early, but Not So Often <Op-Ed> <Full Report>

Turnout is a prime justification for early voting. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin analyzed early voting  and discovered it actually decreases turnout.

From the Op-Ed

States have aggressively expanded the use of early voting, allowing people to submit their ballots before Election Day in person, by mail and in voting centers set up in shopping malls and other public places. More than 30 percent of votes cast in the 2008 presidential race arrived before Election Day itself, double the amount in 2000. In 10 states, more than half of all votes were cast early, with some coming in more than a month before the election. Election Day as we know it is quickly becoming an endangered species…

But a thorough look at the data shows that the opposite is true: early voting depresses turnout by several percentage points…Controlling for all of the other factors thought to shape voter participation, our model showed that the availability of early voting reduced turnout in the typical county by three percentage points

Early voting only adds to convenience and weakens the effect and motivation for Get Out The Vote Efforts:

Even with all of the added convenience and easier opportunities to cast ballots, turnout not only doesn’t increase with early voting, it actually falls. How can this be? The answer lies in the nature of voter registration laws, and the impact of early voting on mobilization efforts conducted by parties and other groups on Election Day.

In most states, registration and voting take place in two separate steps. A voter must first register, sometimes a month before the election, and then return another time to cast a ballot. Early voting by itself does not eliminate this two-step requirement. For voters who missed their registration deadline, the convenience of early voting is irrelevant.

Irrelevant to the current research yet relevant to the issue, we point out that  early voting also changes the campaign season. With many voting early, literature, advertisements, news articles, late developments, and endorsements occurring after voting begins influence fewer and fewer votes, both in elections and primaries.

The researchers found one exception. Election Day Registration (EDR) when combined with Early Voting does increase turnout:

Fortunately, there is a way to improve turnout and keep the convenience of early voting. Our research shows that when early voting is combined with same-day registration — that is, you can register to vote and cast an early ballot on the same day — the depressive effect of early voting disappears. North Carolina and Vermont, two otherwise very different states that combined early voting with same-day registration, had turnout levels in 2008 that were much higher than the overall national figure of 58 percent of the voting-age population. Turnouts in Vermont and North Carolina were, respectively, 63 percent and 64 percent. Allowing Election-Day registration, in which voters can register at the polling place, has the same effect. Our models show that the simple presence of Election-Day registration in states like Minnesota and New Hampshire increases turnout by more than six points.

So, it seems that Election Day Registration alone has the same effect as early voting combined with EDR. Perhaps more research is needed to verify the combined effect vs. EDR alone. But for now early voting must be considered as a convenience only, and without EDR a detriment to turnout.

Of course, this is only one study and only one election.  But the report sets the bar quite high for them level of detail and analysis. And the enthusiasm of 2008 would be the last type of election environment where we would expect  a convenience functioning to reduce turnout.

Going forward, proponents of Early Voting, who accept this research, must embrace EDR while focusing on the convenience and prove claimed cost savings of early voting(*).  CTVotersCount will continue our efforts to point out integrity risks of mail-in voting(**), and the costs associated with safe early voting.

* We have heard many claims of cost savings for mail-in voting.  A case would need to be made based on each state’s proposed implementation. Perhaps it is easy to show savings for statewide all mail-in voting, yet maintaining election day polling place voting would on the surface save little, unless many polling places were closed – negating at least some existing convenience.

** As Ron Rivest has pointed out, there is a case for excuse absentee balloting including military and overseas voters.  But limiting mail-in voting, limits exposure, and limits the risk.


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