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Report

Early Voting: What Works

  • Diana Kasdan
Published: 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details the bene­fits of early voting programs and proposes seven recom­mend­a­tions to substan­tially improve our outdated elec­tion process.

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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