Politics & Policy

Could Early Voting Elect Donald Trump and Skew the System?

Trump address a rally in Phoenix, Ariz., March 19, 2016. (Ralph Fresco/Getty)

Arizona’s primary on Tuesday is now a “yuuge” factor in the Republican nominating process. If Donald Trump were to win even a small plurality of votes, he would win all of the state’s 58 delegates and keep his momentum going.

But the results in this important primary might be skewed. Arizona is an early-voting state, and people can cast ballots up to 26 days before the actual primary. As of last Thursday, 249,000 Republicans in Maricopa County alone (where Phoenix is located) had already cast ballots. That’s already more votes than the total cast in Maricopa in the 2012 GOP primary.

Early voting is a big advantage for Donald Trump, who tends to do very poorly among late deciders in primaries. “That banking of votes early on does help Trump tremendously, no matter what happens,” Richard Herrara, a political-science professor at Arizona State University, told the New York Post Friday. “He’s probably got a pretty sizable lead, so he’s just got to hold on.” 

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That will be made easier by the fact that Marco Rubio was drawing 16 percent of the vote in Arizona, according to recent polls. Anyone who voted before last Wednesday didn’t know that Rubio would no longer be in the race. Any votes for Rubio will therefore be wasted and will increase Trump’s chances of sweeping all 58 delegates.  

Once cast, early votes are like a non-refundable deposit on a hotel: They can’t be recovered. “Early voters often miss valuable debates and late-breaking news in campaigns,” former Arizona congressman John Shadegg told me. “But anyone who goes to sporting events knows you shouldn’t leave before the game ends, because surprises often happen.” 

Do we want to abandon one of the only remaining occasions on which Americans come together as a nation to perform a collective civic duty?

It’s time to reconsider the craze for early voting. In 35 states, people can vote early without having to give an excuse for missing Election Day. That’s up from 20 states a little more than 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 in September 2014. “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 the Grateful Dead were probably wrong when they sang “too much of everything is just enough.” Sometimes it’s just too much — just ask someone who has gorged on ice cream.  

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A YouGov poll 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 reconsider whether we really want to become a nation of convenience voters. Do we want to 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 only 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.” As early voting becomes the norm rather than the exception in election, a court case may ultimately have to decide whether it violates that constitutional principle.

#share#Early voting is also changing our campaigns — and not for the better. Former congressman Shadegg told me: “Early voting changes the whole way we campaign, and makes it more expensive. It used to be you would build a whole campaign to reach a crescendo on Election Day.” As I reported in October 2014 at National Review Online, Christian Adams, a former Justice Department official, critiqued early voting, telling the Washington Times: “Incumbents and Washington insiders love early voting because they already have the money and staff to monitor the integrity of the voting process. They know that challengers and local candidates can’t afford it.” 

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And early voting’s cousin — absentee by-mail ballots — present additional problems. Even die-hard opponents of voter-ID laws at polling places acknowledge the dangers of fraud in absentee ballots (Though they see the risk of fraud, which is growing, they continue to support the passage of early-voting laws that often involve the broader use of absentee ballots.) 

Ironically, early voting hasn’t accomplished the goal of increasing turnout. Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate until his death last year, told me that turnout is down even in states that have made it easier to vote through early voting or with Election Day registration. He worried about the consequences of early voters’ missing out on debates and late developments. 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. 

#related#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’d find the results to be an improvement. 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 an electorate with more low-information and even no-information voters.

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