Absentee ballots have long been available to voters who expect to be out-of-town on election day or for whom, due to disability, find voting at the usual polling place burdensome. In recent years, states have broadened the acceptable justifications for requesting an absentee ballot, so that, in many jurisdictions, if a voter wants an absentee ballot, one will be provided.
A newer idea is early voting, a procedure whereby a person may vote at a polling place some number of days before election day. Like absentee voting, early voting is intended to accommodate those for whom voting on election day is difficult or impossible. By making voting easier to schedule, early voting is intended to increase participation in elections.
Republican legislatures in several states have sought to curtail early voting recently by shortening the period before election day during which votes may be cast. Whatever rationale may have been advanced publicly for such changes, the clear intent has been to make it more difficult for voters thought to favor Democrats to cast ballots.
Liberals have condemned the new abbreviated early voting periods. To be sure, the motivation of Republican legislators has been reprehensible, but early voting deserves more scrutiny than it usually receives.
Early voting does indeed promise greater participation in elections by giving voters more opportunities to fit voting into their busy schedules. This primarily helps blue-collar voters, who are less able to take time off from work to vote than are their white-collar counterparts. It has the added benefit of diminishing waiting lines, particularly on election day. Long lines can cause voters to give up waiting in disgust and simply not voting at all.
Early voting has its drawbacks, however. Too long an early voting period can result in voters choosing candidates based on less information than is available to later-voting citizens. Early voters do not see late-running political ads or endorsements, and they cannot react to late-breaking news about candidates, either positive or negative. A candidate might even be arrested or die between the beginning of the early voting period and election day!
I was made keenly aware of the perils of voting early in the recent Pennsylvania primary. A friend who votes by absentee ballot because of mobility issues voted for one candidate because he was from the Pittsburgh area. (The other candidate considered was from Philadelphia.) Unlike most of her votes, this one was something of a stab in the dark for a lesser publicized office. I voted on election day and was inclined to employ the same logic for selecting a candidate as my friend. Shortly before election day, I learned of “my” candidate’s anti-choice leanings, however, and chose instead to vote for the candidate recommended by Planned Parenthood. My friend was sorry she mailed in her ballot early. (Pennsylvania does not provide for early voting, by the way, and does not allow for “no-excuse” absentee voting.)
There is merit to early voting, and Republican efforts to do away with it should be resisted. But voters can be given flexibility regarding voting dates without creating a lengthy early-voting period. A month or more is simply too long. I see no reason to allow more than a week for early voting, assuming that voters for whom this imposes a hardship can vote by absentee ballot.
Update, 10/1/2016. The presidential election is more than a month away, and several states are already allowing early voting. This is foolish. There are more presidential debates to follow and, no doubt, damaging revelations about one or both of the major candidates.