Feature

The case against early voting

Instead of allowing a wider range of persons to take part in elections, it effectively disenfranchises millions

Three months away from the end of this year's primary season, there are already a number of lessons that can be drawn. One is that things like ad spending, fundraising, ground operations, and even polling averages (none of which seemed to be working in Joe Biden's favor a few weeks ago) are far less relevant than most professional observers like to assume. Another is that we should do away with "early voting." This catch-all term, which always filled me with dread, refers to a wide array of electoral practices, some of them only quasi-legal. (In many states you still technically need a valid reason to obtain an absentee ballot — as far as I am aware, "I just don't feel like showing up" is not accepted in any of them.) All told, they account for more than a third of all ballots cast in presidential elections.

There are a number of reasons why early voting — whether the phrase refers to widespread abuse of absentee ballots or approved excuse-free mail-in voting or the advance in-person casting of ballots — is a bad idea. One is simply that it begs a very serious question about the desirability of maximizing voter turnout. Is it, in fact, in the best interest of a democracy to facilitate the participation of as many technically eligible voters as possible? Once upon a time most liberals accepted this premise without hesitation — among the miracles performed by Donald Trump in 2016 was the revival of concerns about so-called "low-information voters" (insert your caricature here of opioid-addicted, meme-frazzled easy mark for Russian disinformation campaigns). If we are just taking about presidential elections, it seems to me worth asking whether people for whom it is too much to ask to do one thing that takes between five minutes and an hour once every four years really have a meaningful stake in our political life.

Then there is the problem of late breaking news or scandals. Imagine if the infamous Access Hollywood tape had appeared two days before the 2016 election instead of in early October. If a week, as Harold Wilson famously said, is a long time in politics, then two weeks or a month is far too early for anyone to be casting a ballot except in extraordinary circumstances.

Which brings us to another more important (and more topical) reason for getting rid of early voting, especially in primary elections, namely that it does not actually succeed along the lines in which it was envisioned. Instead of allowing a wider range of persons to take part in elections, it effectively disenfranchises millions. We have already seen hundreds of thousands of votes thrown away in Super Tuesday contests on candidates who had dropped out days earlier. By the time the next round of primary states vote on March 10, election officials will be tallying up ballots cast as early as January for candidates like Andrew Yang (for whom my maternal grandmother voted by mail just before the New Hampshire primary).

What exactly becomes of these ballots depends to a great extent upon the state in which they were cast. In Michigan, voters are technically allowed to request that their ballots be "spoiled," which is to say, discarded and replaced with new ones. But this is a somewhat cumbersome process that involves either writing by the Saturday before the election or going to one's city or township clerk in person no later than the day before the contest. Early voting, which is meant to streamline the process of declaring one's support for a particular candidate, in this case actually becomes more difficult than simply finding the time between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. to cast a physical ballot.

Even with the no-doubt serious threat of Russian interference — i.e., stupid Twitter posts and the existence of the Green Party — I somehow doubt that most of my fellow Americans would openly agree with me that ensuring high turnout is not an important electoral priority. How could we go about this if we did away with most forms of early voting? One possibility is the expansion of ranked-choice voting, once a fever dream in political science departments across the country but now in use in four states, including Nevada. Like most schemes envisioned by academics, allowing people to choose more than one candidate for the same office has an enormous number of consequences that are difficult to predict in advance. Universalizing it would be nothing short of a constitutional revolution. A far humbler solution to the question of how we can ensure that everyone who wishes to do so is able to participate in elections on election day is simply to eliminate the difficulties that exist at present. State primary elections should be public holidays. In most states it is already illegal to penalize an employee for taking time off to vote; this legislation should be regularized throughout the country. Presidential elections should be national holidays; all polling place should provide free childcare, and preferential treatment should be given to parents, elderly persons, the disabled, and others for whom waiting in line is especially taxing. Food and drink — including (why not) alcoholic beverages — should be supplied. (Would you really rather have a sticker?)

If we took voting half as seriously as high-minded scolds pretend to think we should, we would have done all of these things ages ago.

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