Early Voting Is Very Popular
In much of the country, early voting is well under way. Polls suggest that as many as 52% of Americans plan on voting early in the presidential election. In states like North Carolina, ballots for voting by mail were sent out beginning in early September.
It is widely anticipated that voter turnout will surge to record levels. The 2018 midterms brought the highest voter participation rates (for a midterm election) in at least 4 decades, with more than 50% of the voting-age population showing up at the polls.
Higher turnout seems to be reflective of the politically charged moment we’re living through. The COVID-19 pandemic, protests over the killing of George Floyd (and other incidents involving police and African-American citizens), and a damaged economy are all sources of intense political division.
This year, unlike 2016, there are far fewer undecided voters. 4 years of partisan rancor seems to have hardened opinions, on all sides. This will be an election unlike any other.
As I see it, American presidential elections need reform. We should (mostly) eliminate early voting. Instead, we should extend the presidential election, and hold 10 days of in-person, drop off and mail-in voting. Here’s why.
Voters Should Decide Based On The Facts Currently Available — Which Can Change Quickly
During a one week period (from September 27 to October 4), the following events occurred:
a. President Trump’s tax returns were released by the New York Times.
b. President Trump and Joe Biden held the most contentious and chaotic presidential debate in modern American history.
c. President Trump tested positive for COVID-19, and was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
d. President Trump took a ride around the hospital in a presidential vehicle while admitted, which prompted further controversy.
Each of these realities, on it’s own, might change the votes of someone who voted early. Perhaps someone who was initially skeptical of the president, decides that his approach is preferable and his performance on the economy was strong. Or, maybe a slightly Trump-leaning voter tires of the president’s behavior, and decides to support Joe Biden.
Either way, if a voter already cast a ballot, there are few mechanisms by which he or she might alter their vote. The ballot which was cast on September 25 cannot be retracted and redone. Simply put, do-overs are hard (though possible, in states like Wisconsin).
In a fast-moving political environment, it is vital that voters make decisions with all relevant facts in hand. Voting 3 to 6 weeks before November 3, makes this impossible.
This is not the first presidential election where a pivotal event occurs right before the official election date, and impacts voter behavior. On October 28, 2016, then-FBI Director James Comey announced that the FBI had “learned of the existence of emails” which were relevant to an investigation into Hilary Clinton’s private email server.
An analysis from statistician Nate Silver, founder of FiveThirtyEight, found that Comey’s announcement probably cost Hilary Clinton the 2016 election. Silver argues that Comey’s statements likely swung enough votes to tip the election in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Reasonable people can agree with or oppose Comey’s actions. One might also take exception to the broader investigation into Clinton’s email servers — or believe that it was proper.
Whatever your views on Secretary Clinton, it’s clear is that for a slice of voters, this late-breaking event mattered. Voters should be able to consider all relevant facts, before choosing who will earn their vote. Those who cast their ballots early don’t have this opportunity.
As others have noted, early voting is akin to allowing jurors to vote in a criminal trial, before the prosecutor and defense attorney have finished presenting their cases. We would never allow that. So, why is voting in elections, a pivotal part of political life in this country, treated differently?
Early Voting Advantages Incumbents
Phil Andrews is a former member of the Montgomery County Council. Montgomery County is the largest county in Maryland. Writing in the Washington Post, Andrews raises another important concern with early voting — that it helps incumbents. As Andrews sees it, “the more days that people are able to vote, the more money it costs candidates to to keep their messages up.”
Incumbents tend to have a large financial advantage over challengers. As a result, we’re only making it harder for fresh-faced new leaders to enter office.
In recent years, the incumbency advantage has decreased somewhat, especially in House races . High profile primary wins by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, Cori Bush in Missouri, and David Brat in Virginia each prove this. So is the 2018 flip of the House, where Democrats gained control, by winning 41 seats.
Yet, allowing for long election cycles, where voting goes on for weeks, magnifies the need for candidates to raise more money. Any candidate who hopes to win must ensure that voters hear his or her message — and then show up to vote. This isn’t cheap.
We want to elect individuals who are great leaders for their communities, and have skills beyond sophisticated panhandling. I am not suggesting that every incumbent holds office mainly because of his or her strong fundraising skills — and little else. However, far too many elected officials fall into that category.
The 10 Day Election
To avoid these issues, while protecting the sacrosanct right to vote, I propose a somewhat different approach. All early, in-person voting should be eliminated.
Instead, we should offer in-person voting from the first Tuesday in November — until the following Thursday. So, for this year, that would mean November 3 to November 10. Polling places should be open during the standard hours of an election day — but for 10 days.
Mail-in ballots should, of course, be made available. However, they should not be mailed out until about one week before the first Tuesday in November. This way, they arrive shortly before (or during) the 10 day election period (even if we assume the mail takes a bit longer than usual).The United States Postal Service must be properly funded to help ensure mail arrives on time.
Mail-in ballots should be accepted as long as they are recieved a few days after the end of voting. This helps account for delays with mail service. A similar issue was the subject of a recent Supreme Court ruling, regarding early voting in Pennsylvania.
Federal law should require that every zip code in the United States (no matter how few people live there) contain at least one secure drop-off location, for ballots to be physically dropped off. This helps ensure that voters who are uncomfortable mailing their ballots, can still vote securely.
The law should provide that the more densely populated a district is, the more such boxes are available. We should strive to avoid situations like that in Harris County, Texas. There, the closure of a number of ballot drop-off sites, ordered by Governor Greg Abbott, created further inconvenience for those who are not voting in person.
What about in-person voting? In October 2020, we’ve observed long lines for early voting, which has hit record levels throughout the country. Part of this is due to current conditions. The COVID-19 pandemic has driven a rise in both mail-in voting, as well as voters trying to social distance, and avoid potential overcrowding on November 3.
We should expand the availability of in-person voting, by adding more polling stations, to each polling location. If needed, more polling places should be opened, and poll workers should be paid. The goal should be that each voter must wait no more than 20 minutes to cast their vote. This might seem ambitious, yet, it is very much possible.
These changes make sense for several reasons. First, each voter is able to make a decision, with the full amount of information available. Votes are not cast one month or more in advance of the election.
Yet, it also ensures that voting is safe and simple. We provide voters with the flexibility to vote through many different means. So, we’re not sacrificing the convenience or security of voting, by limiting voting to a shorter timespan.
Ballots can be cast by mail, in person, or by dropping them off in a secure location. When we make reasonable efforts to accommodate voter preferences, while ensuring the security of our elections, we’re all better off.
Towards A Better Electoral Future
If we examine political history of the past two millennia, we see that democracy is an aberration. We in the United States (and many other nations), are conducting a rather unique experiment.
As a result, it sometimes takes us a while to get things right. Early voting is a well-intentioned concept.
Yet, it has some serious flaws. Fortunately, we have a very viable alternative. Allowing for an extended voting period, after the first Tuesday in November, allows Americans to vote securely, while ensuring that voters can decide with all relevant information in mind.