The Insensibility of Early Voting

Early voting damages the American political system

JFMK School of Government

On Nov. 6, a mere 19 days from now, voters will be asked to make decisions that could change who controls Congress and who lives in the White House. Candidates have little more than two weeks to make their final pitches, while it is becoming increasingly important that voters make up their minds in time for Election Day.

There is only one problem with this scenario:  The election is not merely “approaching.” For tens of millions of voters, Election Day is today. Or tomorrow. Or yesterday. For these citizens of the United States, the term Election Day has become a literal misnomer. The notion that every registered voter in the country carries out his or her civic duty on a single day—by law, the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November—is now a myth. A more honest description of the manifestation of good citizenry would be “election month” or, as some states begin voting a full forty-five days before so-called Election Day, perhaps “election season.”

This is early voting. As of the 2012 election, two-thirds of the states in the Union allow ballots to be cast prior to November 6. These 32 states represent every region of the country. Early voting has quietly become a pervasive feature of the American political process, and it has done so at a detriment to the political system.

On Sept. 6, North Carolina opened the period in which any voter could cast an absentee ballot, regardless of whether or not he or she could provide an excuse for missing Election Day. Not long after, the first states began allowing citizens to actually trek to the poll booths to cast their ballots. This is September we’re talking about. This is before any presidential debates and before most debates for other races. This is before final advertising pushes and many newspaper endorsements. This is before there can even be such a thing as an “October surprise.”

As one might infer, early voting is a relatively recent phenomenon in the modern political cycle. Oregon began hosting entirely mail-in elections in 1998.  Florida’s tradition evolved from reforms after the 2000 “hanging chads” debacle. It was not until 2008 that 80 percent of voters in Colorado decided to cast their ballots prior to Election Day.

This actually harkens back to the original days of choosing electors, when the federal government permitted each state to decide on which day from among a 34-day period before December it wanted to cast its ballots. It was not until 1845 that Congress rectified the inequalities in this system, the same inequalities that exist in the primary election calendar today. States that chose early influenced those that chose later. In close elections, the decisions of the later states carried more import.

In setting a uniform date, Congress ensured that every individual had the same amount of time to ponder his vote, to hear the pleas from the candidates and their surrogates, and to make appropriate travel plans to get to the polls.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, technology has largely transformed the latter concern into a nonissue (although there are certainly those for whom accessing transportation is no easy task). The others rationales, however, still stand. Public opinion surveys of early voters have the ability to irrationally excite or depress a campaign. These unreliable polls (like one giving John Kerry a “large lead in Iowa”) end up distorting the allocation of resources that a candidate would normally spend convincing voters nationwide. In an election in which early voting is permitted, not every voter is created equal. For example, states with a large population of early voters often find themselves frontloaded on candidates’ travel schedules.

As a college student casting my ballot in the state of Pennsylvania, I have no choice but to cast my ballot early. It is only due to the circumstances of college life that I will not be able to physically vote on November 6 in the state I call my home. The same holds true for those serving in the military and those whose work has taken them overseas. Absentee balloting exists for those of us who have situational excuses for truancy on Election Day. It is not meant to be a system for those too busy or too lazy to stop by their local church or elementary school on a Tuesday in November.

Voting used to be an act of community. Neighbors came together in unity to elect their leaders. Now, as citizens treat their ballots as unfortunate pieces of mail on their to-do lists, it is increasingly becoming an act of insouciance. If you cannot make time to make it to the polling place, how much value do you really place on citizenship?

Nov. 6 is Election Day. That sounds so simple. You go in. You make your pick. You leave. Then again, I suppose it would be naïve to assume anything in politics to be that simple. Campaigns are long, drawn out processes. Incumbents are forced to spend time away from their day job—the one in which taxpayers employ them—to hit the trail. Early voting makes the election season even longer. When policymakers are not governing, the nation is hurt. Giving them 30 fewer days to convince the population that they deserve reelection is not ideal. We did, after all, give them a country to run.

John F. M. Kocsis ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Eliot House.

Tags