Let's Pump the Brakes on the Benefits of Early Voting

| NOV 3, 2016 | 8:37 PM
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As of Sunday, October 30, 21 million votes had been cast in this year’s presidential election despite the fact that Election Day was then nine days away.

Some are borne out of necessity, as not all voters can be present at their designated precinct on November 8 and therefore require an absentee ballot. In theory, these are to be completed remotely and then mailed to one's city or town hall. In practice, some voters can actually complete an absentee ballot in person without any proof that they will indeed be absent — and thus, for all intents and purposes, partake in the rising trend of early voting.

In essence, early voting enables voters to decide for themselves when Election Day is. It is legal to vote early without an excuse for doing so in 33 states plus Washington, D.C. The time frame in which one can vote varies from state to state from between four to 50 days prior to Election Day.

Voters who cast their ballots 50 days prior to Election Day may be asking themselves a whole different set of questions under starkly different circumstances. One might argue they are reasoning based on a different set of facts. We certainly know more about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton now than we did on September 19th — more damaging, scandalous, decision-altering information. Our dilemma, therefore, is this:

If we leave the figurative finish line of citizens’ execution of their voting rights up to their discretion, are we somewhat de-legitimizing the presidential race as a whole?

To be clear, early voting is acceptable, but only to a point; the extent to which it has been expanded does raise concerns. Its purpose is supposedly to prevent long waiting lines — keeping in mind the elderly and disabled — to generally ease congestion around places of voting, and to provide alternatives for those who work or have other commitments.

These are valid arguments, but there are still downsides to the current state of early voting that deserve consideration. One of them is our attachment to convenience as the primary justification for lax regulations.

In January 2014, the Obama administration's Presidential Commission on Election Administration issued a report noting that “enabling voters to cast a ballot at a time convenient to them, not the election authority, is the whole point of allowing voting before Election Day.” Early voting borne out of convenience is, well, all too convenient. Is it really so important that people should be able to vote whenever they want to for its own sake?

The report also noted: “Whatever the form early voting may take, it must be administered in an equitable manner so all voters can have equal opportunity to vote.” This reflects a growing trend regarding our voting process that, when taken with the firm resistance some have to voter ID laws, can be identified as a relaxation of procedures supposedly in the name of equal opportunity.

But equal opportunity and pure convenience are distinct. The former does not require each state to provide absolutely identical circumstances for each voter; some will have to travel longer distances, others will have to take public transportation, some will have to endure the heat while in line, and others must brace the cold. That’s only natural in a country of over 300 million people.

To expect voting to become an effortless process that requires progressively less of us each time around simply because it is a cherished right is as foolish as petitioning for an absolute right to free speech without consequences after the fact or a right to bear arms without regulations imposed beforehand.

The commission's report ultimately found that all states should continue to use early voting, and that they should decide for themselves an appropriate window of time to set. This leaves open the possibility that in the near future, we could see voting begin 70, 80 or more than 100 days before an election. Change of this sort is nothing to scoff at, and its consequences are far-reaching.

In such a scenario, the focal point shifts from Election Day to whenever it is that the urge strikes us to vote: after seeing a particularly compelling ad, an off-putting soundbite, or a breaking news headline. It becomes a cluttered summing up of how we feel at various moments — stretching over a period of days, weeks, and now nearly two months — rather than the mood of a nation on a singular, defining time. This, as Eugene Kontorovich and John McGinnis argue in “The Case Against Early Voting,” “weakens civic cohesiveness, and it threatens to substitute raw preferences and momentary opinion for rational deliberation.”

The 2014 report brushed aside concerns over civic integrity, collective costs to self-government, national unity, and even a potential upswing in voter fraud — or least more time and avenues for it to occur. The report calls early voting a “quiet revolution,” and indeed it is: Nearly one-third of voters cast their ballots before Election Day four years ago. But wouldn’t it be interesting if early voting, designed as a measure to encourage civic participation, actually led to a decrease in voter turnout?

One 2013 study published in the American Journal of Political Science examined the effects of early voting on voter turnout in 2004 and 2008. It found that early voting had an unintended consequence of “reducing the civic significance of elections for individuals.” Opening up a large window of opportunity to vote seemed to indirectly instill a lack of urgency to actually do it. Whereas a singular Election Day is inherently abuzz with magnitude, this is not the case with a drawn-out stretch of dozens of minor election days.

For decades after this country’s founding, voting was held over a number of days, mainly to provide rural voters ample time to traverse swaths of untamed land to reach the ballot box. Then, like now, convenience justified early voting. Since those days, each state has gone through ebbs and flows of early voting restrictions and expansions, and today it is a diverse conglomeration of rules wherein a handful of states even allow voters to change their ballot choices, some more than once.

At what point should we draw the line between pragmatic leniency in the voting process and broad expansions for the sake of expediency? Does early voting make enough of a difference in turnout to encourage it? Have we reached a point where early voting is, as the commission noted, “here to stay”? These questions are worth asking.