FRED WOLFERMAN: Jumping the Gun: Is Early Voting Really a Good Thing?
Early voting has become quite the thing. It is allowed, in some form, in 36 states. Recent newscasts have shown long lines and reported early turnouts in record numbers.
Candidates like it because it locks up early votes. Officials like it because it evens out traffic and makes the actual Election Day more manageable. Voters like it because it makes voting easier. So this is all good, right?
Until 1845, there was no national Election Day at all. Each state made its own rules for the selection of its electors, who, under our system, cast the actual votes for president. The only reference to a fixed date in the Constitution is that Congress shall determine the date for choosing the electors, and it shall be on a single day. An 1845 law establishes that date as the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November.
Notwithstanding the apparent clarity of that language, we now have polls open, in many cases, weeks in advance of Election Day. This is because the actual electors are not officially chosen until the ballots are counted, and that occurs on the first Tuesday following etc., etc. The states have the power to regulate the voting schedule, as long as the results are tabulated on the official day.
Fortunately, when this system was designed, there were no such things as exit polling, instant communication or enormous, flexible advertising budgets. Unfortunately, there are now.
This means that when tens of thousands of people show up for the first day of early voting in Ohio, for example, the media report this record turnout, include a demographic analysis, and ask people how they voted. The leading campaign can then direct its efforts and money toward getting more similar people to the polls in the following days, not only in Ohio, but wherever else it can find them. It may also have the effect of discouraging voters favoring the trailing candidate from voting at all.
Furthermore, if you vote ahead of Election Day, you are making your decision based on incomplete data. Events might dictate a change in your thinking. Something new may be revealed about a candidate, for good or ill. Though it has never happened, a candidate could die.
It creates new opportunities for fraud, as unscrupulous types determine where they need to pad the count. With the other new trend, that toward simultaneous early registration and voting, individuals can register and vote multiple times, even in multiple jurisdictions, particularly where requirements for identification are minimal or poorly enforced.
And finally, it just doesn't seem right. Yes, I know, everybody has the right to vote, but shouldn't it involve more than strolling over to the polling place anytime you feel like it? Or worse, mailing in your vote as is the standard procedure in Oregon?
The whole point of an election is to measure the will of the electorate at a point in time.
Ideally the electorate should be well informed and thoughtful. A vote is a very valuable thing; much of the world's population does not get one, and for many who do, it really doesn't matter much. There are, after all, elections in China.
So, at the risk of sounding elitist, do we really want to make it simple for anyone to cast an ill-considered ballot? Shouldn't a voter be interested enough to make an effort to vote, willing to put a little work into his citizenship?
I would cut some slack for people who are unavoidably somewhere else, and every state, I believe, offers an absentee ballot. This is different in kind, however, since it can remain sealed until Election Day, and nobody can interview or profile the voters. Even here though, ballots should probably require a postmark no more than a week ahead of the election.
I know a lost cause when I see one, however; this cat is out of the bag. Next will come widespread electronic voting, and you can only imagine what fun hackers will have with that. Electronic voting might work if every qualified voter could be required to register in person, be given a discrete, secure identification number, and vote on the same day. I don't know if that is possible.
We have moved into a new electoral era of easy qualification and easy voting. Over the centuries, we have broadened the electorate to encourage anyone who is over 18 and can breathe to vote. This is fair; this is progress; this is democracy. That it is. The results speak for themselves.
Fred Wolferman lives in Southern Pines. Contact him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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