Last week, the Ohio House approved a bill that would reduce the period of early voting, currently set at 35 days before Election Day. The Ohio bill is part of the ongoing debate over extending or curbing early voting. Last month, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration released a report identifying key problems during the 2012 elections. Claiming that 10 million Americans waited at least 30 minutes to vote last cycle, the commission proposes, among other solutions, that states “expand” early voting efforts.
The rationale for early voting is simple: to shorten polling lines and increase the number of possible days a citizen can cast his or her ballot.
But the simple solution makes the grand assumption that a vote is just as valuable if cast long before an election as if cast within a week of it. An election is scheduled on a specific date, and with that in mind, campaigns exhaust every hour leading up to the final close of polls: whether by advertisement, debate, or voter contact. Votes cast too early might be impulsive or uninformed.
The Senate Committee on Rules and Administration convened on Wednesday to discuss the findings and solutions of the report. Sen. Angus King (I-Maine)—who caucuses with the Democrats—said he witnessed a downside to early voting in his home state:
We had a situation in a Maine election recently where we had very early voting…The dynamics of the election changed in the last several weeks…We actually had people going into their town offices trying to retrieve their early vote to change it.
King gave no objection to early voting per se, but to “how far in advance” voting should begin. Co-chair of the commission, Robert Bauer, general counsel to the DNC, without specifying a number of days to which early voting should be limited, called for a “customer service” approach to voting laws:
Voters actively resist the notion that they all need to be funneled through on one day on a Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. at night.
Determining the exact number of days seemed irrelevant to Bauer, who otherwise disputed the claim that those who vote early are susceptible to casting hasty ballots:
The voters that vote early are the voters that are most settled on their choice. They are the voters who have made up their minds.
Let’s suppose this is true—high propensity, partisan voters tend to cast their ballots early. Aren’t these the same voters, loyally committed to a particular cause, who would endure long lines at the polls? Those are doubtfully the people who, feeling “cramped” at polling places, feel discouraged to return. Yet those are the report’s targeted voters.
Granted, if partisans vote in advance, polling places on Election Day might be less crowded, but that is an argument for allowing early voting (where it is needed), not for extending its duration. The possible benefits of a less packed polling place do not outweigh a surge in hastily cast votes.
In fact, studies observed by the bipartisan commission reveal that “early voting does not increase turnout.”
Representing the Republican interest in the commission, Co-Chair Benjamin Ginsburg argued that the real problem of long lines stems from poor management, not insufficient early voting. Long lines are not a national epidemic, but, as the report shows, limited to specific jurisdictions.
Ginsburg and Bauer make a reasonable recommendation, and an unsurprisingly conservative one: the federal government should mostly be absent from the execution of election specifics. Where early voting could curb polling problems, implement it. Where it is excessive, limit it. In sum, state and local governments should, based on the particular needs of their own jurisdictions, determine how their elections should run—which is nothing new.
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