No one knows if Brett Kavanaugh will win Senate confirmation. But we do know that the cage match over his nomination comes only a few weeks before the mid-term elections -- and that millions of Americans will have already voted without knowing the outcome of the debate. Early voting began last week in several states and by our actual "Election Day," over 40 percent of Americans will have already cast ballots.
Is early voting a good idea that’s gone too far? It was precisely because of events like the Kavanaugh nomination that Congress in 1845 declared the first Tuesday in November as the national Election Day. A jumble of competing state election days had meant that late-breaking developments were leading voters in some states to go to the polls with different information from those who voted early. Some early voters came to regret the vote they cast before subsequent news had broken.
But starting with Texas some 30 years ago, advocates of “convenience” voting have gradually won the argument that Election Day should become Election Month. A total of 34 states offer “no-excuse” absentee voting or another kind of early voting this year. In addition, three states - Colorado, Washington and Oregon - mail ballots to all voters.
The early voting period ranges from as much as 45 days before an election to as little as four days. The average length is just shy of three weeks. In the early 1990s, only about 7 percent of votes were cast early. In 2016, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission reports that 41 percent of people cast early ballots. That year, the early voting period started in many states before Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had even completed their three debates.
We should reconsider whether we really want to become a nation of convenience voters. Shouldn’t we debate what this is doing to our democracy before we wake up and find that Election Day is completely gone? Do we want to abandon one of the only remaining occasions on which Americans come together as a nation to perform a collective civic duty?
Early voting is also changing our campaigns — and not for the better. With a few exceptions, such as Wisconsin and Minnesota, early votes are like a non-refundable deposit on a hotel: They can’t be recovered or changed.
“We shouldn’t make voting the equivalent of sending in a Publishers Clearing House contest form.”
Former Arizona Congressman John Shadegg also tells me: “Early voting changes the whole way we campaign, and makes it more expensive. It used to be you would build a whole campaign to reach a crescendo on Election Day.”
The growth of absentee and early voting boosts candidates with the biggest war chest, because a campaign now needs the resources to mobilize voters to turn out not only on a single day but over a long period of time. It also means more advertising on TV and more money spent — things people tell pollsters they dislike about politics today.
A majority of early ballots are actually absentee by-mail ballots, and they present real issues of ballot security. Even die-hard opponents of voter-ID laws at polling places acknowledge the dangers of fraud in absentee ballots.
The National Commission on Federal Election Reform, co-chaired by former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, noted back in 2001: “Growing use of absentee voting has turned this area of voting into the most likely opportunity for election fraud. . . . These cases are especially difficult to prosecute, since the misuse of a voter’s ballot or the pressure on voters occurs away from the polling place or any other outside scrutiny. These opportunities for abuse should be contained, not enlarged.” Indeed, the number and severity of absentee-ballot fraud cases continue to grow every year.
Ironically, one of the big selling points used to justify early voting has proven to be a bust. It doesn’t increase voter turnout. Several studies, including one by American University and another by the University of Wisconsin, conclude that states that have adopted early voting have lower voter turnout than states without early voting.
The 2013 University of Wisconsin study found that “early voting lowers the likelihood of turnout by three to four percentage points.”
One reason is that “in anything but very low-turnout local elections, absentee and early voting do not increase turnout,” John Fortier, director of the Democracy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, told Congress in 2010. “Essentially, the same people who would go to a polling place to vote on Election Day are motivated to vote by mail or to show up at early-voting polling places. New voters are not attracted to elections because of these processes.”
There are certainly things we can do to improve elections. “We should make voting much easier on Election Day — ample poll workers, longer hours, and easier registration,” Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute told me. “But we shouldn’t abandon the tradition that people gather collectively behind a curtained booth to make their choices. We shouldn’t make voting the equivalent of sending in a Publishers Clearing House contest form.”
It’s past time for the states to reconsider allowing all voters such an easy rush to judgment. Early voting is certainly here to stay, but allowing people to vote before official debates are over isn’t necessary or wise.
We should preserve the notion that Election Day was established for a reason and deserves to be respected. Because if present trends continue, we will become a nation in which less than half of us vote on Election Day and the rest of us vote during Election Month.
I doubt we’ll find ourselves happier with the results or having solved any of the problems with our democracy.