We have done away with Election Day in most of the country in favor of Election Month. Over a third of voters in 2008 — up from 15 percent in 2000 — cast their ballots using either early voting at polling stations or mail-in absentee ballots. This year, the proportion of votes cast before Election Day is expected to pass 40 percent. But shouldn’t we debate what this is doing to our democracy before we wake up and find that Election Day is completely gone? It has already effectively disappeared in Oregon and Washington.
It’s hard to exaggerate how much “convenience” voting has taken hold of our election process. North Carolina started mailing out absentee ballots on September 7, only one day after Barack Obama accepted his party’s nomination in Charlotte. A total of 32 states and the District of Columbia now allow early voting. Key swing states such as Virginia, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and North Carolina are either already allowing or about to allow people to cast ballots.
“We’ve evolved to the point where every day is Election Day,” Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, told National Journal. “It used to be that there was always tomorrow in a campaign — ‘We’re down, but we’re going to come back tomorrow.’ Well, now tomorrow never comes, to quote the Bond movie. Because it’s always Election Day, it takes away some of your hope if you’re down. And it increases the pressure on you, because at every minute, somebody is voting and they’re closing the book on you.” The growth of absentee and early voting also aids candidates with the biggest bankroll, because a campaign now needs the resources to mobilize voters to turn out not only on a single day but over a long period of time. It also means more advertising on TV and more money spent — things people tell pollsters they dislike about politics today.
In the days when Norman Rockwell used to paint Saturday Evening Post covers showing people lining up outside churches and schools to vote, the idea was that we all should vote together. If you cast your ballot early or as an absentee voter, you were shirking your civic duty; you would do that only as a last resort. In our era of instant gratification and impatience, that notion might strike many as outdated.
But it is still in our laws, and we shouldn’t dispense with the notion of Election Day without a full debate. In 1872, Congress codified the idea of Election Day when it stipulated that presidential elections should be held on the same day throughout the nation. Several states have gotten around that dictate by making early voting the rule rather than the exception. Courts have so far failed to intervene, citing a “long history of Congressional tolerance” toward absentee and early voting, and accepting claims that it increases voter turnout.
But “in anything but very low-turnout local elections, absentee and early voting do not increase turnout,” John Fortier, director of the Democracy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, told Congress in 2010. “Essentially, the same people who would go to a polling place to vote on Election Day are motivated to vote by mail or to show up at early-voting polling places. New voters are not attracted to elections because of these processes.” His findings are echoed by Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University. “Early voting is pernicious to our political system,” he told the Tampa Bay Times in 2010. He notes that while the 2008 vote that elected Barack Obama had the highest turnout since 1960, in the dozen states with the lowest turnout, eleven offered some type of early or easy absentee voting. Among the 13 states with the biggest turnout increases in 2008, only six offered early voting or easy absentee ballots.
It’s also a bad idea for so many people to vote without hearing the full debate a campaign brings them. Imagine if you had early voting in jury trials, in which some jurors could cast a vote before all the evidence had been presented in court. Voters are casting ballots on the basis of potentially radically different information — 85 percent of the country will be able to vote before the last presidential debate finishes on October 23. An astonishing 15 percent will be eligible to vote before the first debate on October 3. Once a person casts an early vote, he can’t take it back, even in the event of a last-minute scandal, an economic upheaval, or a foreign-policy crisis that might make him prefer another candidate. Some observers think it’s possible that Barack Obama would not have won in 2008 if that year’s dramatic economic crisis had occurred in late October, after many people had already cast their votes, instead of in mid-September when the crisis actually hit.
Leaving aside presidential politics, in some state and local races, a voter might be completely disenfranchised by voting early. In 2002, Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota died well after many people had cast absentee ballots. Those voters weren’t permitted to change their minds. And what happens if a candidate drops out near Election Day — as has happened many times — and a huge chunk of voters have already expressed their preference? They wouldn’t even be able to cast a write-in vote.
In the case of absentee ballots, there is also a greater risk of fraud. The National Commission on Federal Election Reform, co-chaired by former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, noted in 2001: “Growing use of absentee voting has turned this area of voting into the most likely opportunity for election fraud. . . . These cases are especially difficult to prosecute, since the misuse of a voter’s ballot or the pressure on voters occurs away from the polling place or any other outside scrutiny. These opportunities for abuse should be contained, not enlarged.” Indeed, the number and severity of absentee-ballot fraud cases continue to grow every year.
“We should make voting much easier on Election Day — ample poll workers, longer hours, and easier registration,” Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute told me in 2008. “But we shouldn’t abandon the tradition that people gather collectively behind a curtained booth to make their choices. We shouldn’t make voting the equivalent of sending in a Publishers Clearing House contest form.”
The states should reconsider allowing all voters such an easy rush to judgment. The growth of early and absentee voting, with fewer and fewer of us voting on Election Day, is changing our democratic process in ways we have not fully considered. Should voters be able to vote whenever they feel like it? Is that what we really want?
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.