Politics & Policy

Early Voting Has Made It Impossible to Replace Trump

Trump speaks at a rally in Arizona, October 4, 2016. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)
Hundreds of thousands of votes have already been cast. Do any of these voters want to change their mind now?

It’s generally agreed that it’s too late to replace Donald Trump as the GOP candidate. Nearly 500,000 votes have already been cast, deadlines have passed in many states, and Democrats would sue in court to prevent any substitutions. Ignore the fact that they successfully argued for replacing disgraced Senator Bob Torricelli on New Jersey’s ballot in 2002.

But one reason that any replacement of Trump on state ballots would be so difficult is that our Election Day has transformed into Election Month. The Census Bureau tells us that as recently as 1996 nearly 90 percent of voters went to their polling places on Election Day, This year, some 40 percent are expected to vote before Election Day by early or absentee mail-in ballot. Lots of people love “convenience voting,” but it comes at a real cost we should consider in the middle of this latest Trump controversy.

In 37 states and the District of Columbia, no excuse is needed to cast a ballot before Election Day. Ballots are automatically mailed to every voter in Oregon, Washington, and Colorado. This year, in some states early voting began in mid September.

Some political players love early voting. “It saves a lot of money,” Elizabeth Bartholomew, communications manager for the county recorder’s office in Phoenix, Ariz, said in March this year. But it often shifts costs. Voters have to pay for a stamp, and most remain unaware of the truth: A certain number of first-class mail-in votes simply don’t get delivered in time to be counted. Phoenix election officials were roasted after their decision to reduce the number of Election Day polling places in this year’s presidential primary to 60 from over 200 in 2012. The result was huge lines.

There are other winners. My colleague Jim Geraghty recently wrote at NRO that “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 for those who want greater voter turnout, early voting is not a winner of an idea. Study after study shows that early voting seldom increases overall turnout. In a 2001 Wall Street Journal essay about the Bush–Gore election dispute, I quoted Curtis Gans, who then was the director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate — he observed that the people who are really helped by early and absentee voting are those who would cast ballots anyway, often, as he put it, “lazy middle-class and upper-middle-class people.”

Who knows what October surprises could still occur this year after millions of votes have already been cast?

This year, Hillary Clinton’s campaign is making a massive effort to have minority and young people participate in early voting, so we’ll have to see if such an effort really boosts turnout. What is clear is that Hillary Clinton wants more early voting. Last year, Hillary said that as president she would push to have the federal government override state laws and automatically register everyone to vote and then offer at least 20 days of early voting, truly turning Election Day into Election Month. Both ideas would dramatically complicate the job of already overburdened voter registrars and make it harder to catch potential fraud. In New York v. United States (1992) and in other cases, the Supreme Court has clearly ruled that it is beyond Congress’s power to do what Hillary wants.

We should also worry that early and absentee voting allows voters to cast ballots before they might receive useful information or crucial insights into candidates. The leak Friday of the Trump Tape and Hillary’s Goldman Sachs speeches are perfect examples. Many early and absentee voters might miss the final presidential debate on October 19. Who knows what October surprises could occur this year after millions of votes have already been cast?

Way back in 1845, the federal government set a uniform, single day for voting for president: the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November. That law still stands but has effectively been nullified by states expanding long-held legitimate exceptions for early voting. It’s time to revisit the issue. So far, court rulings are scant. Oregon’s no-excuse absentee-ballot law (which allows any registered voter to request an absentee without requiring the voter to state a reason for his desire to vote absentee) was challenged in 2001, and a federal court ruled that as long as election officials don’t count early votes until Election Day, early voting is legal. That should not be allowed to be the final say on the matter.

Reasonable compromises can be arrived at. In his book Absentee and Early Voting, election scholar John Fortier argues that we can retain the convenience of pre–Election Day voting while lowering the risk of fraud and intimidation. He suggests that states expand hours at polling places for early voting, but only during the ten days before the election. New computer software can be used to match signatures on absentee ballots with registration records and flag those that raise concerns. States should hire independent investigators to interview a sample of voters about potential coercion or intimidation.

#related#If early and absentee voting weren’t so prevalent now, we might be having a discussion about whether the GOP could realistically replace Donald Trump on state ballots. As it is, it’s impossible to replace him.

Without giving very much thought to it, we’ve also lost something else in our rush to early voting. Numerous analysts, from George Will on the right to Norman Ornstein on the left, have decried the transformation of voting into an act of convenience rather an act than of communal pride we can share with our children.

It’s past time for the states to reconsider allowing all voters such an easy rush to judgment. Convenience voting is popular, but people should recognize that making it too easy to vote also carries real costs.

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