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Debating Benefits of Early Voting

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

Early Voting Sign

A conversation about early voting is playing out in the New York Times this week. It started Monday, when chief political correspondent Jeff Zeleny reported that early voting is changing the way political campaigns are waged across the United States, if not voter participation.

The calendar may still say September, but people can begin casting their ballots on Tuesday in Ohio. Voting is already under way in Georgia, Iowa and four other states, with Arizona, California and Illinois set to start in the next two weeks.

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While people in New York must have an excuse to vote before Election Day, which is why only 5 percent cast absentee ballots in the presidential race two years ago, most states no longer have that restriction. Voting alternatives range from a pure mail-in ballot in Oregon to a three-week period of balloting in Florida, Texas and Nevada.

Early voting has hardly driven all eligible citizens to vote. Turnout has increased only slightly since 2005 when many states began making voting more convenient. But it has made it far easier for campaigns to find voters who would be likely to be supportive if they could get them to the polling place. And with 70 percent of Americans now able to take advantage of no-excuse early and absentee voting, the trend is permanent.

“It’s not going to represent a seismic shift in the number of people voting,” said Dan Tokaji, an Ohio State University law professor who studies early voting and election law. “The convenience of voting is a factor, but it’s not the major reason that people don’t show up to vote.”

Today, the Times has posted an online back-and-forth between columnists Gail Collins and David Brooks about what they see as the downside to early voting: voters may cast a ballot too early, before a big development in the campaign that may cause them to want to take back their vote.

Gail Collins: David, in my home state of Ohio, people are already voting for governor and senator. The midterm elections are on!

I’m all in favor of making it easy to vote, but there are limits.

I don’t know about you but I find this very weird. Given the candidates we’re seeing this year, it’s perfectly possible that over the next month, a contender for high office will run off with the local kindergarten teacher, or get caught abusing a hamster. Imagine how bad you’d feel if you woke up and discovered that the guy you voted to make governor was living a secret second life as an Albanian drug lord? Really, there’s more than a month left to go. Some of our less well-funded candidates have hardly got an ad up. I’m all in favor of making it easy to vote, but there are limits.
Politics

David Brooks: Gail, I’m completely in agreement with you about the over-expanded voting system. Why can’t we go back to the good old days when most people woke up on Election Day and decided not to bother voting, instead of forcing them to wake up day after day and decide not to vote? It messes up the whole rhythm of a campaign. Candidates make their argument in stages — from the clueless start to the vicious middle to the insipid end.

Arguing in favor of early voting in today’s Times, particularly in New York state which has some of the most stringent voting requirements nationwide, is political consultant Richard Fife.

Such efforts have met with great success. In the 2008 presidential race, about 40 million people nationwide, or about 30 percent of all voters, cast their ballots before Election Day; in some states the proportion was as high as half.

These reforms not only make voting easier, they also reduce congestion at polling places on Election Day and diminish the effectiveness of last-minute negative political attacks.

Moving up New York’s primary and allowing early voting are easy ways to increase democratic participation. True, they wouldn’t get every New Yorker to the polls. But they would take away a number of well-worn excuses.

What do you think about early voting? Would moving Election Day from Tuesday to Saturday instead of having weeks of early voting be a better bet? Any other ideas? Let us know your thoughts.

For our previous coverage of early voting issues, click here.

Photo of early voting sign via pauladamsmith on Flickr.

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