According to some estimates, by the time the first East Coast precincts open on November 6, four in ten voters will have already cast their ballots for the next president of the United States. That’s because in 32 states and the District of Columbia, early and absentee voting have turned Election Day into Election Month. Eighty-five percent of American voters are able, if they choose, to vote before the last presidential debate, and 15 percent are able to do so before the first presidential debate. This victory of convenience over civic duty is not a happy development for the republic.
The politically apathetic perennially lament that their vote “doesn’t matter.” As an empirical matter, they are of course entirely correct. You’ll sooner win the Powerball lottery than cast the deciding ballot for the leader of the free world. But the universalization of such a maxim paradoxically renders it false — that is, the more people believe their vote doesn’t count, the less true it becomes — and such a universalization would be fatal to democracy. So we invest voting with the aura of a civic ritual. The maxim that your vote doesn’t matter is replaced with the maxim that voting matters. And one of the ways this is accomplished is through the notion that voting is an event — that the electorate comes together as a whole to make a decision at a particular moment in time. That that particular moment is arbitrary matters not, because it is arbitrary for every voter in exactly the same way.
The (admittedly bizarre) logic and (admittedly interminable) length of presidential contests owe their form to this. From the first straw polls and exploratory committees to the closing of the last precinct halls, the race is punctuated by a series of events, created by custom and accident alike, that presidential campaigns use as waypoints in the elaboration of their pitches to the American people. All of them — the primaries, the conventions, the debates, the swing-state whistle-stop tours and fourth-quarter ad-buying blitzes — are precision-set to a very particular clock, one that stops ticking after November 6.
Voters, too, used to be set to this clock, particularly the critical class of “swing” or “undecided” voters whose preferences, by definition, do not start to cohere until weeks, even days before the election. Conveniently enough, in the past, just about the time these voters started to reallocate that marginal minute of attention span away from their jobs, families, and other responsibilities in order to plug into the election, the race reached its crescendo, with prime-time debates, all-in advertising, and peak media coverage of both campaigns helping to solidify the alternatives.
But the mass movement toward early and absentee voting disrupts the rhythms of this republican waltz. It exaggerates the advantages of having the early money lead, preexisting ground game, and known-quantity name recognition of the incumbent. It cuts off critical classes of voters from obtaining the fullest picture of the candidates or changing their mind in light of “October surprises” or acts of God. It makes voter fraud both easier to perpetrate and harder to catch. And it undermines our central political rite — the act that binds We, the People — perhaps in ways we have not even considered.
To be sure, it would be ill-advised to eliminate early and absentee voting entirely. But their use should be discouraged and limited to cases of hardship. We rightly hold in contempt candidates who construct plastic personae out of nothing but the latest polling data, and think little of elected officials who govern in line with the slightest cavitation of their approval ratings. So why do some think it indicative of a robust and healthy democracy that millions of Americans, moved by a moment’s pique or a fleeting sentimentality, can lock in their preferences about the future of the country at any random date and time after the ticker tape falls at the party conventions?
“Vote early and often,” the cynical cliché goes. But all other things being equal, we’d just as soon Americans vote only once, on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.