Thursday, November 1, 2012

Early voting: death by a thousand cuts

I realize early voting is all the rage these days. Various States--some 32 of them--have enacted laws allowing citizens to vote well in advance of Election Day. In the past, early voting was basically the same as absentee voting: you did it because you had a reason, a justification, for not being able to vote in person on Election Day. Not so anymore. Now early voting is open to everyone with no justification required in these many States. The National Conference of State Legislatures summarizes the current voting situations here. With regard to early voting, it offers the following summary points:
  • The date on which early voting begins may be as early as 45 days before the election, or as late as the Friday before the election. The average starting time for early voting across all 32 states is 22 days before the election. 
  • Early voting typically ends just a few days before Election Day: on the Thursday before the election in three states, the Friday before in nine states, the Saturday before in five states, and the Monday before Election Day in 11 states. 
  • Early voting periods range in length from four days to 45 days; the average across all 32 states is 19 days.
These extensive periods of voting are rationalized with arguments about opportunity, access and cost: early voting gives more people the opportunity to vote, it makes voting easier and therefore more accessible, and it reduces--in the aggregate--the cost of voting for individual citizens. Jonathan Bernstein summed up the supposed goal of early voting earlier this month:
So, no, I don’t think the case for single-day voting is particularly strong. I’m far more concerned about finding mechanisms for making voting as inclusive as possible; that’s the democratic value that the United States has traditionally done a poor job with that I’d like to see improved. I’m not sure whether early voting really does that — the big reforms that would help would be universal voter registration and making sure that more citizens are eligible to vote — but to the extent that states believe various forms of early voting help, I think it’s great that they try them.
In a nutshell, that--the part in bold-- is why we have early voting now, to be more inclusive (one of the top buzzwords of the last twenty years), to basically have more people voting. The question is, is that really a good idea? Is the formula that simple: the more people who vote, the better--or more democratic--our system will be?

Bernstein's piece was in response to this piece by Robert Kelner at the Weekly Standard, who details one of the chief problems with early voting:
With early voting, there is no longer a single electorate. There are many electorates. There is the electorate that voted in September just after the conventions, the electorate that voted in October before the debates, and then the more informed electorate that voted on Election Day. The vote count on election eve is no longer a snapshot in time reflecting our collective judgment. It is more like a "moving average"—an aggregation of what different Americans thought at different times based on different information...

But that's not the worst part. A far more troubling scenario would emerge if an event took place late in the campaign that fundamentally changed—or should have changed—the voters' calculus. A war breaks out. A scandal erupts. A grainy video surfaces that reveals a candidate's past act of corruption or depravity, or worse.
Rightly, Kelner's argument against early voting is centered on voter information. One of the assumptions of a free and open society is that the citizenry has the access to the same basic information, particularly as concerns candidates for elected office. Thus when they vote--as whole--they vote in response to this knowledge, albeit not in the same way as each gets to assess the available information on their own.

With early voting, the electorate is truly fractured, as disparate groups vote with different sets of information as a matter of course. The longer the period of early voting--and the more distant it is from Election Day, proper--the greater this fracturing.

That said, the case can be overstated: the effect of a scandal late in an election cycle could be diluted by early voting, but that scandal could just as easily occur in the days immediately following an election, thus making it inconsequential, perhaps tragically so. There is no such thing as perfect knowledge when it comes to voting. So maybe the benefits of early voting outweigh this potentially negative consequences?

But let's return to the goal of early voting: more people voting. And to one of the benefits that makes this so: lowering the cost of voting. Now we all know that poll taxes are illegal--and justly so--but there are still inherent costs when it comes to voting, whether in person or by mail. We have to register to vote, first. And that might mean taking a trip to a State elections office, filling out some forms online, or mailing said forms to the elections office. All of these actions have costs in time and/or money.

Once registered, we then have to actually vote. Setting aside absentee voting--which is most definitely a necessity for some and has costs, as well--we have to go to a specific location at a specific time to cast our ballots for various offices. When all in-person voting occurs on just one day, this means making very specific plans ahead of time, since we may have to work, may lack an easy method to get to the polling location, may have children to take care of, etc. And because most everyone else is voting at the same time and resources are not infinite--even for the government--there is a potential of waiting, sometimes for hours, which again is a real cost.

Early voting alleviates many of the costs or potential costs. If we are already registered to vote, we need not make definitive plans to cast our ballots. Instead, we can simply do so--within the window of opportunity--when it is most convenient, when we have an unexpected period of free time for instance, or when other duties put us near an early-voting polling location. And best of all--for those in favor of early voting--we needn't worry about long lines. If the wait is too long, we can simply come back another day. There's the added benefit of minimizing waiting times for others on Election Day, as well.

But here's the thing about actions and costs: there's intrinsically more value--a greater sense of worth and accomplishment--in those things we have to pay for, we have to work for, we have to earn. To whom does the privilege of voting mean more, the person who lackadaisically decides to vote because they happen to be "in the neighborhood," or the person who makes a point of rearranging their life in order to be at the polls on Election Day? Which of these hypothetical people is more likely to take their right to vote for granted? Which is more likely to be better informed or at least to make a larger effort at being better informed?

And there's another truth here, with regard to early voting: it will be mostly a boon to incumbents, not challengers, just as was the case with parts of McCain-Feingold until the Court struck them down. Why? Because incumbents already hold the better hand, when it comes to organization and mechanisms to "get out the vote." And imagine--for the moment--what the coupling of McCain-Feingold (as originally passed) would mean for incumbents: the window for negative ads against them would shrink even further, limiting the ability of challengers to contest their records even more. It's not a pretty picture for democracy, yet it seems entirely lost on those who claim to champion democracy.

The right to vote is accessible to all citizens right now. Yet it is not without it's costs, nor should it be. Because it does matter, voting is important--nay, critical--to the perpetuation of a a free nation. Expanding the voter rolls is, on its face, a good thing, a noble goal. But the means through which such an end is achieved matter. More people should vote because they want to vote, because they see it as a duty of citizenship and accept the costs involved with fulfilling this duty, not because it's become an easy thing to do. For that breeds laziness and apathy. And in the end, when early voting has been around long enough, I suspect there will be no long-term benefit from this experiment: the percentage of the the voting public will not be impacted in any significant way. Or it may even decrease, because when you take something for granted, you often end up ignoring it. Or forgetting about it entirely.

Cheers, all.


  1. "Now we all know that poll taxes are illegal--and justly so"

    I would disagree with you on the "justly so" part, and I would be brief. Let me define poll tax for my purpose here. The election costs something, and tax payers are already paying the price. If a tax were charged when voting only to cover the cost of having the polls open - that seems to me to be a good thing.

    From my point of view, you seem to be in favor of SOME cost to vote, as anything thought of as free is little esteemed (I took some small liberty in speaking for you there), but you seem to have made an arbitrary decision that this cost cannot be measured in dollars.

    That seems inconsistent to me. Would you disagree with my assessment?

  2. Well, a poll tax is being set by the government, right? So it can be arbitrarily changed at any time.

    The costs I speak of are secondary and not subject to arbitrary change as a means of impacting an election.

    Part of my piece is, after all, about things like early voting being used to protect incumbents. Poll taxes can be used quite easily for the same purpose.

  3. Thanks Robert.

    Your composed reply did not resemble, in any fashion, an knee jerk reaction. That makes you the first one.

    A trophy of the lowest grade plastic on a fine walnut base is being constructed (in my mind) to celebrate this historic event.