Finding the Golden Mean for Early Voting

Early voting makes sense. But allowing it too early can deprive voters of last-minute information. Making it too late vanquishes early voting’s advantages.

October 20, 2016

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Three weeks after moderate Oregon Republican Senator Bob Packwood was elected to a fifth term in 1992, the Washington Post published an expose that destroyed his political career. The Post documented that Packwood, an ardent champion of abortion rights, had sexually harassed ten women during his years on Capitol Hill.

(Yes, there are 2016 parallels to this story, but not the ones you think).

Oregon voters were outraged that they only learned of Packwood's untoward behavior after an election that he won by 78,000 votes. The state's dominant newspaper, the Oregonian, published a front-page apology for its failure "to devote the time and resources needed to delve into the rumors, which had swirled around Packwood for years." The Oregonian could easily have broken the story since one of the senator's victims was a reporter for the paper.

For all the fury, there was no remedy to the problem of voters learning too much too late. An effort was made to recall Packwood under Oregon law, but the state attorney general determined that the recall statute only applied to state officials. In the end, Packwood, now a Washington lobbyist, hung on to his seat until 1995 when he resigned under threat of expulsion by the Senate Ethics Committee.

What gives this story contemporary relevance are the estimated 450,000 voters who had already cast ballots before the Donald Trump hot-mic tape was released October 7. Ten days later, as the number of women who alleged that they had been groped by the Republican nominee neared double digits, the number of recorded votes had grown to 1.9 million. And this doesn't count ballots that were already in the mail.

According to a Washington Post-ABC News Poll conducted last week, the tape of Trump's boasting about sexually assaulting women prompted 38 percent of independents and 13 percent of Republicans to say that it made them less likely to support Trump. Let's assume -- for the sake of argument -- that 10 percent of these early voters for Trump are now regretting their electoral choice. If the two presidential candidates split the 1.9 million votes already cast, that would work out to 95,000 Trump voters afflicted with buyer's remorse.

Putting that conservative 95,000 figure in context, Barack Obama in 2012 carried Florida by 73,000 votes and Ohio by 104,000.

Before November 8, Clinton voters, too, could have reasons to rue their early ballots. Wikileaks (aided by Russian hacking) has been releasing a few thousand emails each day from the personal account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman. Up until now, the Podesta emails mostly prove that political campaigns act in a political manner. But the daily drip-drip-drip from the Podesta hacking still carries the threat of a bombshell that could upend the final days of this vicious campaign.

This is not merely a reflection of a guttersnipe election year filled with October Surprises. Early voting also semi-disenfranchised some Republicans casting ballots in the presidential primaries. For example Marco Rubio won 70,000 votes (13 percent) in the March 22 Arizona primary, even though the Florida senator had dropped out a week earlier.

Some may balk at any criticism of early voting at a time when governors and state legislatures have been restricting voting rights with unneeded ID laws and other thumb-on-the-scale gambits to limit turnout. In similar fashion, it may be tempting to hail Colorado's effort to follow Oregon's lead in moving toward a universal vote-by-mail system.

But what we actually have is a collision between two public goods.

In a democracy, it is imperative to encourage as many eligible voters as possible to cast ballots for reasons of fairness and for giving all citizens a stake in the electoral outcome. No-fault absentee voting and opening polling stations in the days before an election enhance participation -- especially for would-be voters with inflexible hours on the job or childcare problems.

But another vital aspect of democracy is to assure that citizens cast intelligent ballots after weighing all the relevant information about the candidates. That is why over the past half-century debates have become something that almost no candidate can duck -- whether running for president or for county commissioner.

The problem is that -- especially in a presidential race -- the news cycle has scant respect for the needs of the early voter. Investigative articles may take weeks to produce; campaigns may dump opposition research in late October; campaign files may be hacked; and external events may upend the race. Imagine if, say, Lehman Brothers had collapsed the Friday before the 2008 election rather than on September 15.

There is also a secondary factor worth noting. Down-ballot candidates rarely have the funds to mount a full month-long TV advertising campaign. A decade-ago, when Election Day voting was the unquestioned norm, a state senate candidate might buy TV time in the last week of the campaign with the confidence of reaching almost all the voters. But now such a candidate has the choice between advertising too early (the message may be forgotten by Election Day) or too late (maybe one-third of the votes would have been already cast).

What is needed is to find a reasonable date for the start of early voting.

It is often difficult for voters in primaries to sort out the candidates since they are all in the same party. That is why -- even if states need to send out absentee ballots earlier -- no one should be allowed to vote until a week before Primary Day. In November, however, the starting point (which can be judged by postmarks) probably should be no earlier than two weeks before Election Day.

What has to be remembered is that early voting in isolation is not a panacea. Nor is informed voting a remedy for the woes of democracy if the franchise is artificially limited. The goal must always be to find the sweet spot -- the earliest day on which all voters can cast smart ballots.

(Photo: ThinkStock)

Walter Shapiro, a columnist for Roll Call, has covered the last ten presidential elections. Along the way, he has worked for two newspapers (USA Today and The Washington Post), two news magazines (Time and Newsweek), two monthlies (Esquire and the Washington Monthly), and three online publications (Yahoo News, Politics Daily and Salon). Shapiro is also a lecturer in political science at Yale. His book on his con-man great-uncle (Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Führer) was published earlier this year. A former speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, Shapiro is also the author of "One-Car Caravan: On the Road with the 2004 Democrats Before America Tunes In," a chronicle of the early skirmishing for the 2004 presidential nomination.