Politics & Policy

The Trouble with Early Voting

Mail-in ballots being sorted in Doral, Fla., October 2010. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
When Election Day becomes Election Month, voters cast ballots before they have all the relevant info.

Early and absentee voting have their place, but they are becoming the rule not the exception.

The headline in Florida’s Sun-Sentinel newspaper this weekend says it all: “People Who Vote Before Election Could Decide Outcome of Governor’s Race.”

In Florida, a third of the electorate will vote by mail, a third will vote early by going to a voting center, and a third will cast their ballots on Election Day. Nationwide, some 2 million people have already voted, even though scheduled debates haven’t even finished in many states. We are seeing an early-voting craze: In 35 states, people can vote early without having to give an excuse for missing Election Day. That’s up from 20 states just over a decade ago. Half the states also allow no-excuse absentee-ballot voting by mail. Oregon, Washington, and Colorado have abolished the traditional polling place; in those states almost everyone votes by mail.

“In reality, the days of an actual election ‘day’ are long gone,” Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida and director of the United States Election Project, told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s a solid election month, if not more in some places, and will continue to expand.”

There’s no doubt that many people in our increasingly mobile and hectic society want voting to be as easy and convenient as buying fast food. But too much of anything can be bad — just ask someone who has gorged on drive-thru burgers and fries. A new poll by the Huffington Post, conducted by YouGov, found that nearly half of adults say they vote before Election Day at least sometimes, and a third say they do it often. We should listen to what cautionary voices are telling us before we redefine ourselves as a nation of convenience voters and abandon one of the only remaining occasions on which Americans come together as a nation to perform a collective civic duty.

The notion of Election Day isn’t just a tradition; it’s in the Constitution. Article II, Section 1 states that “Congress may determine the Time of choosing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their votes; which day shall be the same throughout the United States.” Congress codified this requirement in 1872 by setting a uniform presidential election date. But in a rare bow to the notion of federalism, today’s courts have nonetheless been reluctant to invalidate state laws that go against this dictate. In 2002, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld Oregon’s vote-by-mail law because of “a long history of congressional tolerance” toward absentee voting. It rejected arguments from the Voting Integrity Project that Oregon’s effective end to voting in person represented “the difference between the exception to the rule and the exception that swallows the rule.”

How is early voting changing our campaigns? They are increasing their costs and difficulty. Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist and adviser to gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, says of early voting: “Clearly it changes the whole way we campaign. It used to be you would build a whole campaign around Election Day.” Richard Smolka, an American University academic who published a newsletter for election officials for 40 years until his death last year, mourned the fact that early voting had made campaigns more costly and more complicated. Smolka cogently identified one of the main reasons so many state legislatures have approved early voting: “It’s incumbency protection,” he said. “It takes more money and more organization to deal with a longer voting period. It exacerbates their advantages.”

Such concerns are echoed by Christian Adams, a former Justice Department official. “Incumbents and Washington insiders love early voting because they already have the money and staff to monitor the integrity of the voting process,” he told the Washington Times. “They know that challengers and local candidates can’t afford it.”

Having fewer election observers to monitor the actual casting of ballots inevitably increases the potential for fraud. Even diehard opponents of voter-ID laws at polling places point out the dangers of fraud in the casting of absentee, by-mail ballots. (Though they acknowledge this growing risk of fraud, they continue to support the passage of early-voting laws that often involve the broader use of absentee ballots.)

Smolka, the election-newsletter publisher, noted that absentee voting worried many of the election officials for whom he wrote: “You have a much larger proportion of votes being cast in an uncontrolled environment. The ballots are out there, and there’s nobody watching.”

Colorado’s new all vote-by-mail system is a blueprint for how fraud could occur. As I wrote last week:

All mail-in ballots in Colorado will be ripe for abuse because “ballot harvesters” are allowed to go door-to-door and collect up to ten ballots with no effective enforcement if they collect more and deliver them at other times. Amazingly, these operatives can be paid based on the number of ballots they collect. The potential for harvesters to pressure voters to turn over ballots, open ballot envelopes, alter ballots, or even throw them away is real.

Other states aren’t quite as lax as Colorado, but the notion of having partisan election workers chasing down ballots should concern everyone. In Florida, the state Democratic party urges their supporters to request an absentee ballot; many of these voters then receive an offer from the party to have a worker come by, pick up the ballot in person, and return it to the elections office. Mark Alan Siegel, the former chairman of Palm Beach County’s Democratic Party, lamented that absentee voting “used to be a game we lost.” Now, he told the Sun-Sentinel, “it’s a game we win.”

But do we want to make our most important democratic decisions even more of “a game”? Consider that for all of the hullabaloo about early voting, studies have shown it hasn’t increased overall voter turnout. Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, notes turnout is down even in states that have made it easier to vote through Election Day registration or early voting.

Gans and other observers are also concerned that early voters won’t have the same information as those who vote on Election Day. They may miss out on candidate debates or be unable to factor in other late-developing election events. “Those who vote a month in advance are saying they don’t care about weighing all the facts,” says Adams, the former Justice Department official. One secretary of state I interviewed compared early voting that takes place before debates are finished with jurors in a trial who stand up in the middle of testimony and say they’ve heard enough and are ready to render a verdict.

Consider, for instance, that Ross Perot suffered his meltdown on 60 Minutes, in which he accused Republicans of disrupting his daughter’s wedding, only nine days before the 1992 Election Day. That same year, only four days before Election Day, Caspar Weinberger and other figures in the Iran-Contra scandal who were close to President George H. W. Bush were indicted. The John Huang campaign-fundraising scandal accelerated in the days just prior to the 1996 election; and, according to Bill Clinton, it cost his party control of the House that year. In the incredibly close 2000 election, Al Gore had a last-minute surge in support, fueled in part by negative reaction to George W. Bush’s 1976 DUI arrest, which hit the media five days before Election Day. Karl Rove says the incident cost his boss the popular vote and at least one state. Luckily for Bush, many voters had already voted, locking in their preference before the DUI story came to their attention. There was no way they could change their vote.

It’s past time for the states to reconsider allowing all voters such an easy rush to judgment. Absentee ballots and early voting are certainly here to stay, but reasonable restrictions are not an attempt to suppress the vote. They would be an effort to preserve the notion that Election Day was established for a reason and deserves to be respected. Because if present trends continue, we will become a nation in which less than half of us vote on Election Day and the rest of us vote during Election Month. I doubt we’ll find the results to be an improvement; after all, we’d see much more of all the things people say they don’t like about politics: longer campaigns, more spending, more micro-targeted and poll-driven messages directed to niche voters, and a less-informed electorate.

— John Fund is national affairs correspondent for NRO and co-author, with Hans Von Spakovsky, of Who’s Counting? How Fraudsters and Bureaucrats Put Your Vote at Risk


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