Early Voting: What Works

October 31, 2013

The lifeblood of a democracy is a voting system that is free, fair, and accessible to all eligible citizens. But much of today’s election system was developed more than a century ago. As Americans’ lives become more complex, confining voting to a single 8- or 12-hour period is simply not reflective of how most voters live. Expanding early voting programs is a crucial way to modernize the system. It adds important flexibility and convenience, reduces the administrative burdens of the Election Day rush, keeps elections safe and secure, and helps bring our antiquated system into the 21st century.

Based on extensive interviews with election officials and an analysis of state early voting laws, this report details the benefits of early voting programs and proposes seven recommendations to substantially improve our outdated election process.

Read the Report

Introduction

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Introduction

The lifeblood of a democracy is a voting system that is free, fair, and accessible to all eligible citizens. But much of today’s election system was developed more than a century ago. It needs to be updated to sustain a healthy democracy. A remnant of this antiquated system is the notion that all ballots (except for absentee) must be cast on a single day. As Americans’ lives become more complex — for many each day is a struggle to balance the needs of work and family — confining voting to a single 8- or 12-hour period is simply not reflective of how most voters live. Additionally, having polls open for such a short time can lead to numerous problems, including long lines, as poll workers — who perform the job infrequently at best — struggle to cope with hordes of voters.

Not surprisingly, early voting leads the list of reforms many states are using or considering. It offers 21st century voters the convenience and flexibility that match the demands of modern life. A majority of states already have some form of early voting. In the 2013 legislative sessions, at least 20 states considered proposals to start or expand early voting. Unfortunately, the trend is not all in one direction. In several states, there have been efforts to curb early voting — efforts that are part of a broader assault on voting rights over the past few years. For instance, a recently-enacted package of voting restrictions in North Carolina eliminates a full week of early voting, same-day registration during early voting, and reduces the hours of early voting available on the final Saturday before Election Day.

Despite the widespread use of, and growing interest in, early voting, there has been little comprehensive research to assess its benefits and offer policy recommendations. This report fills that gap. It is based on a review of the laws in all states with early voting, a review of the relevant academic research, and, perhaps most important, in-depth interviews with 21 state and local election officials who have overseen early voting.

Our research shows the key benefits of early in person voting are:

1. Reduced stress on the voting system on Election Day;

2. Shorter lines on Election Day;

3. Improved poll worker performance;

4. Early identification and correction of registration errors and voting system glitches; and

5. Greater access to voting and increased voter satisfaction.

Based on this research, we make the following policy recommendations for early in person voting:

1. Begin early in person voting a full two weeks before Election Day;

2. Provide weekend voting, including the weekend before Election Day;

3. Set minimum daily hours for early voting and provide extended hours outside standard business hours;

4. Allow use of both private and public facilities;

5. Distribute early voting places fairly and equitably;

6. Update poll books daily; and

7. Educate the electorate about early voting.


Early Voting: What Works