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Expand Early Voting

The Brennan Center’s Democracy Agenda outlines a series of concrete proposals that the next President and Congress should embrace to improve democracy in America.

Published: February 4, 2016

Read our 2018 Demo­cracy report here.

Millions of Amer­ic­ans are given a single day to vote. That day is a Tues­day — a work day, when voting will inev­it­ably be squeezed in among errands and jobs. Unsur­pris­ingly, the result is chaos at the polls when work typic­ally gets out, infuri­at­ingly long lines, and mistakes by over­whelmed elec­tion offi­cials.

Over the past few decades, 32 states have respon­ded by passing laws that let citizens vote in person before Elec­tion Day.[1] Amer­ic­ans can now vote on their own time — week­ends included — and can usually avoid long lines.

But start­ing in 2011, several states star­ted restrict­ing early voting. In North Caro­lina, the legis­lature slashed seven early voting days, remov­ing times that were espe­cially popu­lar among African Amer­ic­ans. Among these: the Sunday before the elec­tion, used by church­go­ers for a “Souls to the Polls” drive. In the prior elec­tion, more than one-quarter of all African-Amer­ican voters in the state had voted on those days.[2] In 2012, Flor­ida dramat­ic­ally reduced early voting. After excep­tion­ally long lines — which dispro­por­tion­ately impacted African Amer­ic­ans and Hispan­ics — preven­ted 200,000 from voting and caused a national outcry, the legis­lature back­tracked and rein­stated most of the days it had elim­in­ated.[3] Over­all, eight states have new laws cutting back on early voting days and hours.[4]             

This is a step in the wrong direc­tion. In 2014, turnout plunged to 36.4 percent, and the number one reason that Amer­ic­ans didn’t vote was that they were “too busy.[5] Amer­ic­ans now work longer hours than ever before, and longer than anywhere else in the indus­tri­al­ized world.[6] Given such a busy popu­la­tion, a single day to vote helps to ensure low turnout.

Proposal

We need more oppor­tun­it­ies to vote, not less. Expand­ing early voting solves the prob­lem. Nation­wide, every state should offer early in-person voting a minimum of two full weeks before Elec­tion Day, includ­ing week­end and even­ing hours.[7]

Some states already meet this stand­ard, open­ing the polls a few weeks before Elec­tion Day, while others allow voters to submit absentee ballots in person without an excuse, among other options.[8]

Early voting eases conges­tion on Elec­tion Day, lead­ing to shorter lines, improved poll worker perform­ance, and improved voter satis­fac­tion. It also allows for earlier correc­tion of regis­tra­tion errors and voting system glitches.[9]

Congress can play its part by passing legis­la­tion to set minimum early voting require­ments for the states. This mandate is one of numer­ous reforms offered in the Voter Empower­ment Act (H.R. 12).  

Why This Can Be Achieved

The general public and elec­tion offi­cials both support early voting because they under­stand it increases conveni­ence for voters and reduces the burden on admin­is­trat­ors.

One recent poll found 75 percent of likely voters support early voting, with 60 percent express­ing “strong” support.[10] A 2013 poll of North Caro­lina voters found 85 percent of respond­ents back early voting, includ­ing more than 75 percent of Repub­lic­ans.[11] Amer­ic­ans also oppose efforts to restrict early voting — an Octo­ber 2014 poll found only 11 percent of voters suppor­ted redu­cing early voting before Elec­tion Day.[12]

Early voting was one of the prin­cipal recom­mend­a­tions of the bipar­tisan Pres­id­en­tial Commis­sion on Elec­tion Admin­is­tra­tion. “[E]arly voting offers Amer­ic­ans oppor­tun­it­ies to parti­cip­ate in the elect­oral process that simply cannot be afforded by [a] contained twelve-hour period,” it wrote. “Elec­tion offi­cials from both parties test­i­fied to the import­ance of early voting in alle­vi­at­ing the conges­tion and other poten­tial prob­lems of a single elec­tion day.”[13]

Efforts to expand early voting can also draw on the long-term success the policy as had in spread­ing through­out the coun­try: The major­ity of states now offer early in-person voting, and bills to estab­lish it have been intro­duced in almost all the remain­ing states.[14]

Resources

  • Early Voting: What Works: Report, based on inter­views with elec­tion offi­cials and an analysis of state laws, that details early voting bene­fits.
     
  • How to Fix the Voting System: High­lights best prac­tices in modern­iz­ing voter regis­tra­tion, expand­ing early voting, improv­ing manage­ment of polling place resources, and improv­ing the usab­il­ity of ballots and voting machines.

Next: Restore Voting Rights to Citizens with Past Crim­inal Convic­tions


[1] Diana Kasdan, Bren­nan Ctr. for Justice, Early Voting: What Works 2 (2013), avail­able at https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/sites/default/files/public­a­tions/Votin­gRe­port_Web.pdf.

[2] Wendy R. Weiser, How Much of a Differ­ence Did New Voting Restric­tions Make in Yester­day’s Close Races?, Bren­nan Ctr. for Justice, Nov. 5, 2014, http://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/blog/how-much-differ­ence-did-new-voting-restric­tions-make-yester­days-close-races.

[3] Tomas Lopez, Flor­id­a’s Voting Debacles Continue With Restrict­ive Absentee Ballot Rules, Bren­nan Ctr. for Justice, Dec. 10, 2013, http://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/blog/flor­i­das-voting-debacles-continue-restrict­ive-absentee-ballot-rules.

[4] Bren­nan Ctr. for Justice, States With New Voting Restric­tions Since the 2010 Elec­tion, http://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/new-voting-restric­tions-2010-elec­tion.

[5] Scott Clem­ent, Why Don’t Amer­ic­ans Vote? We’re “Too Busy,” Wash. Post, July 17, 2015, http://www.wash­ing­ton­post.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/07/17/why-dont-amer­ic­ans-vote-were-too-busy/.

[6] Dean Schab­ner, Amer­ic­ans: Over­worked, Over­stressed, ABC News, May 2014, http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=93604&page=1&single­Page=true.

[7] Diana Kasdan, Bren­nan Ctr. for Justice, Early Voting: What Works 1 (2013), avail­able at https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/sites/default/files/public­a­tions/Votin­gRe­port_Web.pdf.

[8] The Pres­id­en­tial Comm’n on Elec­tion Admin., The Amer­ican Voting Exper­i­ence: Report and Recom­mend­a­tions of the Pres­id­en­tial Commis­sion on Elec­tion Admin­is­tra­tion 55 (2014), avail­able at https://www.supportthevoter.gov/files/2014/01/Amer-Voting-Exper-final-draft-01–09–14–508.pdf.    

[9] Diana Kasdan, Bren­nan Ctr. for Justice, Early Voting: What Works 1 (2013), avail­able at https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/sites/default/files/public­a­tions/Votin­gRe­port_Web.pdf.

[10] Lake Research Part­ners, Voting Rights and Reform: Major find­ings from 2012/2013 research: Early voting and Same-Day Regis­tra­tion.

[11] Poll: Strong Major­ity of N.C. Voters Support Early Voting, North Caro­lina Ctr. for Voter Ed., June 2, 2013, http://ncvotered.com/research/2013/6_3_13_early_voting_poll.php.

[12] Ariel Edwards-Levy, New Early Voting Restric­tions Have Little Support Among Amer­ic­ans, Huff­ing­ton Post, Oct. 17, 2014, http://www.huff­ing­ton­post.com/2014/10/16/early-voting-poll_n_5992638.html.

[13] The Pres­id­en­tial Comm’n on Elec­tion Admin., The Amer­ican Voting Exper­i­ence: Report and Recom­mend­a­tions of the Pres­id­en­tial Commis­sion on Elec­tion Admin­is­tra­tion 54–55 (2014), avail­able at https://www.supportthevoter.gov/files/2014/01/Amer-Voting-Exper-final-draft-01–09–14–508.pdf.

[14] See Absentee and Early Voting, NAT’L CONF. OF STATE LEGS, http://www.ncsl.org/research/elec­tions-and-campaigns/absentee-and-early-voting.aspx (last visited Feb. 4, 2016); Voting Laws Roundup 2014, BREN­NAN CTR. FOR JUSTICE (Dec. 18, 2014), http://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/analysis/voting-laws-roundup-2014#_ftnre­f11.