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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.