Voting Early

One of the signs of heightened interest (a euphemism for political frenzy) in the 2018 midterm elections is the surge in early voting. The phenomenon is striking.

In the 27 states that offer the option of voting before November 6, this year people are casting their ballots in record numbers compared to previous early ballots. In Georgia, nearly three times as many ballots have been cast as at the same point in the last midterms in 2014. Maryland and Texas are also outstripping the 2014 numbers; in Florida, some two million have already voted.

But Minnesota is the undisputed leader. As of Sept. 21, early voting there surpassed the rate of early voting in the 2016 presidential election.

“For a state to have a higher turnout than the last presidential election, you’d have to go all the way back to the founding of the country to see something like that,” said Michael McDonald, a professor at the University of Florida who runs the United States Elections Project.

The obvious and compelling argument in favor of allowing more voting days is convenience, and that surely accounts for its popularity. Another way of looking at it is as an expansion of voting rights, since it reduces the difficulty of voting for those who cannot easily take off work and get to the polling place. Not making things easier, but less hard, giving more equal access for everybody.

One blogger did actually find a downside, lamenting the erosion of the Election Day tradition of “the neighborly lines at the local elementary school, the sense of common purpose, the we’re-all-in-this-together ritual,” and described early voting as “the civic manifestation of the modern age: fragmented, individualistic and solitary.”

But most people have little nostalgia for interminable waits on those “neighborly lines” at the end of a day’s work. Even that blogger conceded that a two-week early voting period would be reasonable, though not up to 45 days, as in some states.

Convenience aside, research does not clearly indicate whether early voting increases the overall turnout in elections, according to reporting by The Washington Post and National Public Radio. It may be that the early voters would have gone to the polls in any case, but prefer to do so when they can avoid the long lines. But those who don’t bother to vote on Election Day will likely not bother to vote any other day either. Thus, the total number voting may be about the same.

Indeed, it’s hard to tease out the impact of early voting from other factors. Even if the overall voting numbers are larger, they can often be attributed to especially controversial issues or candidates — like the hot race in Texas between Republican incumbent Ted Cruz and Democratic Congressman Beto O’Rourke.

Perhaps the most interesting reason advanced against early voting is that it deprives the voter (albeit voluntarily) of the opportunity to be fully informed. Someone who votes two weeks early will do so without knowledge of gaffes, debate outcomes or election-eve revelations that could change minds.

In Montana in 2017, the day before the election, the Republican congressional nominee, Greg Gianforte, assaulted a reporter (he later pleaded guilty). Gianforte won with 50 percent of the vote. Early voters might have reconsidered.

The revelation in the last days of the 2000 campaign of George W. Bush’s 1976 arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol, which seemed to help Al Gore, might have helped him all the way to the White House if the early voters had voted after they heard about it.

Still, this is speculative, and belongs with the what-ifs of history.

In the meantime, the expanded Election Day is an undisputed benefit for millions of citizens, whatever the impact may or not be on the electoral outcomes. The unprecedented numbers of early voters is, in effect, a national referendum in favor of early voting. It would take very strong evidence against it to turn the tide, and no such evidence seems likely.

New Jersey is one of the states that offers early voting, over a month before Election Day. New York isn’t — at least yet.

Bills passed by the Democrat-controlled State Assembly have remained in committee in the Republican-controlled state Senate. While Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have expressed support for the change, as of November 2018, New Yorkers will still have only one day to vote. (As for those who will be away from home or temporarily or permanently sick or disabled, an absentee ballot can be obtained.)

How much longer this will be the case remains to be seen.