On Monday, early voting for the November election started in Virginia, along with “no excuses” absentee voting in South Dakota. So already, a number of voters in those two states have cast their ballots for president — before any debates, without the benefit of any of the events or information that will cascade down upon us in the remaining 41 days before Election Day itself.
[IMGCAP(1)] The trend toward early voting is nothing new; it has been going on for a decade. Early voting had a significant impact in the 2000 election in states like Tennessee. By the time Al Gore noticed problems in his home state and moved aggressively to fix them, enough votes already had been cast to dim his chances of success there. Absentee votes, including many cast in Florida by non-military personnel, made a difference in Florida. But few analysts paid any attention.
This year, all of a sudden, the issue of early voting is hot. It has been highlighted by journalists and analysts in recent weeks as a key factor in the 2004 presidential race. Between 15 percent and 20 percent of voters in 2000 cast their ballots before Election Day, and the number could go considerably higher this year — perhaps to 25 percent or more.
Many analysts have warmly embraced this trend: Typical is the comment by Washington Post columnist David Broder that “signing up absentee voters is a healthy form of participatory politics, and when it comes to elections, the more participants, the better. It’s a good thing both sides have discovered how to stretch Election Day into election weeks.”
Enthusiasm for early voting is not limited to pundits. Election officials love it, because it reduces the pressure on their polling places on Election Day, and they believe it enhances turnout. Party officials, obsessed with getting their vote out this year, love it because they can pinpoint their voters early on and make sure they vote — and vote the right way. And many voters, uneasy about touch-screen machines or fearful of being hassled at the polls, are comforted by filling out a paper ballot and dropping it in a mailbox.
But this is a trend to be deplored, not embraced. Of course participation is good, but it is not the only goal of politics. If it were, we could easily guarantee a 98 percent turnout —by rescinding voters’ drivers licenses if they failed to vote. Other countries, including many in Europe, jack up their turnouts by using the loss of government benefits as a club against non-voting.
In America, we have viewed such coercion as anathema to freedom — a tradeoff not worth making. Moreover, the evidence, compiled by Michael Traugott of the University of Michigan and Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, shows little enhancement of turnout from early voting. Gans persuasively shows that early voting actually can depress overall turnout.
But even if early voting does end up expanding turnout somewhat, it is a worrisome trend. Early voting, especially through mail voting and no-excuses absentee balloting, has several serious downsides:
• It distorts the campaign. Pennsylvania voters began to cast their ballots more than a week ago; Oregon voters began earlier this week; Iowa and Arizona voters can start in a matter of days. A full 29 states now allow no-excuses absentee voting. That means huge numbers of voters will vote long before critical events in the campaign and the world have shaped the choice for the rest of the electorate.
During the final stages of a campaign, when the pressure increases, more voters are apt to pay close attention. Debates are held, October surprises pop up. Candidates react differently under the pressure, and events can change the whole context of the election. Is it fair or wise to have a large share of the electorate making their choice before these things happen?
Moreover, candidates and parties have to alter drastically their campaign styles, targeting different groups of voters at different times in the campaign, at great cost and with more turmoil.
• It invites corruption. The major election reforms enacted at the turn of the 20th century, including the secret ballot, were a response to the widespread corruption practiced by party machines. This corruption was made possible by the way ballots were cast — color-coded or differently shaped for each party, and with party apparatchiks standing by each ballot box to make sure that votes they had bought were cast appropriately.
For a century, the “zone of privacy” around our polling places — the limiting of leafleting and persuasion to an area outside the polls, with a curtain drawn while votes are being cast inside — has protected us from such corruption. It also has protected against more subtle forms of corruption, such as one spouse pressuring another, a shop foreman influencing workers, a pastor (or other congregants) influencing members of a church.
With vote-by-mail, all these corruptive practices are available and opportune. In Florida, long before the 2000 election, the history of absentee voting is larded with examples of stunning corruption: a mayoral election in Miami judicially overturned because of absentee-ballot fraud, for instance, as well as other local elections being suspended or changed.
Oregon, which has had universal vote-by-mail for several elections but also a different political culture than Florida, has not experienced such outright fraud — but in a high-stakes election, anything is possible. And in any event, any state that uses widespread absentee balloting offers such voters no zone of privacy, raising serious questions about the ability of individuals to cast their ballots freely.
Another corruptive danger lurks, one that also was evident in Florida in 2000. On Election Day, both parties and independent groups send observers (and lawyers) to polling places to make sure that no voter intimidation or hanky-panky takes place, and to observe the counting of votes and the sealing of ballot boxes.
But with absentee balloting, ballots come in and are held in partisan local election officials’ offices for days, weeks or months, without round-the-clock supervision, and opportunities for the destruction, alteration or interference of some ballots.
• It cheapens the voting process. Voting is one of the most precious privileges of a free society (as is the freedom not to vote). In America, individuals join their neighbors at a local polling place, underscoring their role as a part of a collective society, then go into a curtained booth to make their choices as free individuals. Every conceivable step should be taken to make the votes cast on Election Day easy to do — longer hours, ample poll workers and voting machines, easier registration, and so on. But we should not make voting the equivalent of sending in a Publishers Clearing House contest form.
Absentee voting has a long and noble tradition, beginning as a way to allow soldiers on the battlefield to participate in democracy. For those who cannot be at the polls on Election Day, it is a necessary and positive alternative (one I use for every general election, because I am up in New York working for a network on election coverage.) The trend to expand absentee voting to larger and larger shares of the population will continue and will probably expand over the next several years.
But just because it will is no reason to be happy about it, or to uncritically accept the notion that anything that encourages turnout is good. Here’s an idea: How about some hearings in the House Administration Committee and the Senate Rules Committee on the pros and cons of early voting?
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.