Politics & Policy

Voting Season

Election day 2012 at a polling place in Staten Island, N.Y. (Reuters photo: Keith Bedford)
Early voting is a well-intentioned idea run amok.

In North Carolina, voters may request and mail in absentee ballots for any reason beginning Friday. In Alabama, absentee voting begins September 14. Voters in Minnesota and South Dakota can hand in their ballots as early as September 23.

In 37 states and the District of Columbia, any qualified voter may cast a ballot in person during a specified period before Election Day. This includes Oregon, Washington, and Colorado — which automatically mail ballots to all voters. In 2012, a little more than 31 percent of Americans cast their ballot before Election Day.

Early voting now represents a good idea run amok. New laws that aimed to make casting a ballot easier and more convenient for busy voters have created Election Month. In some states, voters have six weeks to pull the lever. “Campaign season” has become “voting season.” Candidates’ political operations may find these rules particularly convenient — every vote you know you’ve turned out before Election Day is one less you have to worry about on a particular Tuesday in November — but the trend will almost inevitably come back to bite voters.

The argument for allowing votes to be cast in a limited number of days before Election Day makes sense. Responsible, motivated voters can find themselves unexpectedly hindered on the traditional date. In 2008, an ice storm blew into the Washington D.C. area the day of the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia primaries. Maryland kept its polls open for an extra 90 minutes, but most Virginia counties closed their polls as scheduled, leading to grumbling that some voters who planned on casting ballots after work couldn’t make it because of snarled traffic.

But even-earlier dates for voting means that a significant portion of the ballots — perhaps more than a third this year — will be officially cast before the campaign’s final days. Campaigns can always try to adjust by moving up the release of their “October surprise” opposition research — as when Al Gore allies put out information on the previously unknown arrest of George W. Bush for driving under the influence. (The arrest was revealed too late to be a literal October surprise; it was reported November 2, 2000.)

But consequential world events don’t pay attention to the election calendar: Hurricane Sandy hit the eastern seaboard October 29, 2012; Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy on September 15, 2008, triggering the Wall Street meltdown. On October 29, 2004, the Al-Jazeera television network aired a new videotaped message from Osama bin Laden, his first message in more than a year.

We can only guess what will happen in the final weeks before Election Day 2016. After WikiLeaks released a trove of e-mails from the Democratic National Committee in August, Democrats began to speculate (and worry) about additional leaks of embarrassing information to come.

This year, the earliest of ballots will be cast before any of the three presidential debates or the vice-presidential debate. Suppose in the final debate, Hillary Clinton has a sudden mental breakdown and begins barking like a dog. (Again.) Or imagine that Donald Trump declares that he loves reading Hitler’s speeches, or some other statement completely beyond the pale. Some voters would suddenly realize they had already cast a ballot for a candidate they cannot abide, and there is no way to un-do their decision.

This year, the earliest of ballots will be cast before any of the three presidential debates or the vice-presidential debate.

Why do Minnesotans need to be able to cast absentee ballots 46 days before Election Day? Why does it make sense to have one citizen voting a whole month before another one? Perhaps the growing partisan divide in the electorate means most voters are locked in, and the pool of “late deciders” is genuinely shrinking each year. But how early must a vote be cast before it becomes ridiculous? If early voting is an unalloyed good, because it allegedly drives up turnout, why not allow people to cast ballots in summer? Spring? A year before?

One of the central concepts of an election is everyone casting ballots at roughly the same time, with each voter making his decision with roughly the same information. New information can change voters’ behavior, even on Election Day. Democrats fumed when Jimmy Carter conceded the 1980 presidential election before polls had closed on the West Coast; they suspected some Democrats didn’t bother voting with the presidential election already decided, hurting the chances of down-ticket Democrats.

#related#The public doesn’t know how early voters decided until the ballots are counted election night, but early-voting records do tell us whether registered Democrats or registered Republicans are turning out to vote. In some future year, the early-voting figures will give analysts an excellent sense of which party is getting out their vote, and is thus more likely to win. Election Day could become a mere formality, and early voting may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The month of September is for kids going back to school, the kickoff of football season, and autumn harvests arriving at farmers’ markets. It’s not the right time of year to cast your ballot.

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