In the recent election, 34 states authorized some form of “early voting” — by mail and/or at specially designated advance polling locations — for any and all citizens who chose to avail themselves of the privilege. A movement is afoot to extend the practice to other states — such as Massachusetts. The advantages of early voting are said to be increased voter turnout and convenience, particularly avoiding the long lines that occasionally develop at some polling sites during presidential elections. But early voting is a bad idea for several reasons.
First and foremost, voting is the only civic function that all citizens are expected (but of course not mandated) to perform. While citizens properly enjoy a right to privacy regarding the candidate for whom they have voted, it is beneficial to encourage them to publicize before the largest possible audience the fact that they are voting. Exercising the franchise is an act through which we collectively assert our status as a self-governing people. For many people, including me, it is an occasion for civic pride. Such occasions need to be nourished rather than discouraged. (Economic theorists who treat voting as an “irrational” act, since the odds of a single vote changing the election are too small to be worth the time it takes to go to the polls, overlook the incalculable value to the individual of such pride, as well as its contribution to the maintenance of free government and even of economic freedom.)
Additionally, offering people the opportunity to vote by mail (as in some early-voting systems) for reasons of mere personal convenience, as distinguished from necessity (as required by the absentee-ballot process), encourages a misinterpretation of the act of voting as the expression of a mere private preference (like the Nielsen television ratings) rather than the outcome of a deliberative process that is concerned with the public good. In other words, you vote for whichever candidate most pleases you at the moment. While there is no way of measuring the phenomenon, it is likely that going to vote in a public place at the same time as one’s neighbors promotes the sense of civic responsibility that all citizens ought to feel, so as to temper mere self-interestedness or thinking of politics as just a form of entertainment.
Another problem with early voting is that it is comparable to leaving a stage play before the final act. As lengthy and expensive as they have become, election campaigns remain our foremost means of adult civic education, and promote the most informed electoral choices. Why should voters be encouraged to make up their minds before the official end of the campaign — unaware of new issues or revelations that may emerge in its closing weeks, or sudden developments (international incidents or domestic crises) that bear on the question of whom to elect?
A further difficulty in the case of mail-in ballots is the greater likelihood of fraud, instances of which are described by Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund in his book Stealing Elections. There is no way to guarantee that mail-in ballots will be filled in by the voter to whom they are addressed. They potentially enable a voter in a national election to cast his vote in multiple states. Nor is there any way to guarantee that a mail-in ballot remains secret, or even that it will be counted, since it doesn’t leave a record.
Institutionalized early voting at polling places, on the other hand, makes it far easier to literally vote not only “early,” but “often” — in accordance with the old maxim of machine politics. And whereas television networks have tried to avoid publicizing exit-poll results until the polls close, lest voters be deterred from showing up by the early returns, early-voting “exit polls” are likely to exacerbate the problem.
Finally, should we want to make voting so easy in order to accommodate people unwilling to spend some part of their Election Day going to the polls? To the extent that presidential elections sometimes generate excessive delays, the solution is easy: set up more polling places or simply hire more poll workers at existing sites. But (legal absentees aside) people who care so little about the franchise that they won’t vote unless offered the opportunity for mail-in ballots, or a choice of days on which to vote, probably are no more willing to invest the time it takes to become informed voters.
Regardless of which party one supports, it is hard to make the case that the electoral process will be improved by the participation of a greater number of the indifferent and the uninformed.
– David Lewis Schaefer is a professor of political science at College of the Holy Cross and the author of Illiberal Justice: John Rawls vs. the American Political Tradition.