To the delight of anyone who’s ever waited in line to cast a vote, a bipartisan election commission convened by President Obama concluded last week that states across the country should increase their use of early voting.
As the Presidential Commission on Election Administration notes in its new report, “no excuse” early voting — meaning it is open even to those who don’t qualify for an absentee ballot — has grown rapidly in recent decades in what the commission called a “quiet revolution.” In the 2012 election, almost one-third of ballots were cast early — more than double those cast in 2000 — and 32 states now permit the practice, allowing citizens to vote an average of 19 days before Election Day.
The commission rightly notes that early voting has its advantages for individual voters — not just avoiding long lines, but in many cases also getting to vote on weekends without having to miss work or school. But early voting run amok is bad for democracy. The costs to collective self-governance — which the report refers to only in passing, in a single sentence — substantially outweigh the benefits. Instead of expanding the practice, we should use this moment as an opportunity to establish clear limits on it before it becomes the norm.
Why? For all its conveniences, early voting threatens the basic nature of citizen choice in democratic, republican government. In elections, candidates make competing appeals to the people and provide them with the information necessary to be able to make a choice. Citizens also engage with one another, debating and deliberating about the best options for the country. Especially in an age of so many nonpolitical distractions, it is important to preserve the space of a general election campaign — from the early kickoff rallies to the last debates in October — to allow voters to think through, together, the serious issues that face the nation.
The integrity of that space is broken when some citizens cast their ballots as early as 46 days before the election, as some states allow. A lot can happen in those 46 days. Early voters are, in essence, asked a different set of questions from later ones; they are voting with a different set of facts. They may cast their ballots without the knowledge that comes from later candidate debates (think of the all-important Kennedy-Nixon debates, which ran from late September 1960 until late October); without further media scrutiny of candidates; or without seeing how they respond to unexpected national or international news events — the proverbial “October surprise.”
The 2008 election, for example, could have ended differently had many voters cast their ballots before the massive economic crisis that followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers that September. Similarly, candidates often seek to delay the release of embarrassing information, or the implementation of difficult policies, until after votes have been cast. A wave of votes starting months before the election date makes this easier.
Early voting not only limits the set of information available to voters; to the extent that it decreases the importance of debates, it might also systematically help incumbents and quasi-incumbents like vice presidents, who generally have the advantage of having been in the public eye longer.
More fundamentally, early voting changes what it means to vote. It is well known that voters can change their minds — polls always go up and down during a campaign season. A single Election Day creates a focal point that gives solemnity and relevance to the state of popular opinion at a particular moment in time; on a single day, we all have to come down on one side or the other.
But if the word “election” comes to mean casting votes over a period of months, it will elide the difference between elections and polls. People will be able to vote when the mood strikes them — after seeing an inflammatory ad, for example. Voting then becomes an incoherent summing of how various individuals feel at a series of moments, not how the nation feels at a particular moment. This weakens civic cohesiveness, and it threatens to substitute raw preferences and momentary opinion for rational deliberation. Of course, those eager to cast early will be the most ideological — but these are precisely the voters who would benefit most from taking in the full back and forth of the campaign.
Moreover, there are other ways of achieving some of the benefits of early voting, such as old-fashioned absentee ballots or setting up more polling places. Even a limited few-days-early voting period could convey most of the advantages of the practice while limiting the most severe democratic costs.
Early voting is a matter of degree: Even Election “Day” lets people cast ballots at different times. But at the moment, there is no upper bound at all on the growing practice, and the president’s commission made no mention of such an option. With the group’s report opening a new round of discussion over voting policy, now is the time to consider whether the “quiet revolution” of early voting has gone too far.
[First posted at Politico; John McGinni is the co-author of this post.]