Early Voting Is an Abomination

At his blog, Reed College political scientist Paul Gronke tells us to calm down about early voting.

It’s true that early voting has started in many states, and will start in more states in the upcoming weeks. And it’s also true that both campaigns will be mobilizing those early votes as a way to “bank” voters. But this doesn’t mean that half the country is going to tune out from the presidential contest or miss the debates.

Gronke points out that most voters don’t vote early, and that even those who do tend to vote not in September but in the final days of the campaign.

In only nine states (Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Maine, North Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia) did early votes total more than 30% of all votes in 2008. For two of these, Georgia and Texas, the overwhelming majority of “early” votes are not cast no-excuse absentee but early in-person, which does not start for a few weeks.

It's comforting that most voters are not early voters. But none of this convinces me that the convenience of early voting justifies the damage it does to democratic principle and practice.

I previously complained about early voting during the Republican presidential primary, mainly because early voting decisively aids campaigns with the most money. In the Florida primary, for example, Mitt Romney -- the big-bucks candidate -- was able to flood the airwaves with ads during the extended early voting period while still having plenty of money left for the final weeks. His opponents were largely off the air during early voting, leaving Romney to make his case without fear of contradiction. Admittedly, this is no longer an issue in the presidential race, since both Obama and Romney have plenty of money. But it still matters in congressional races.

Early voting also shortchanges the campaign narrative, which adds new information as it unfolds. What good is an "October surprise" to a citizen who voted in September?

The willingness to vote early, before all the innings are played, is an affront to democratic discourse. It signals that minds are closed to new information. That may be an accurate reflection of American politics -- not only in our especially polarized era but in previous ones as well. Partisanship is an essential feature of our politics. But it's not a vision we should endorse and institutionalize with early voting. Democracy, like a Hollywood movie, requires a certain suspension of disbelief. We know in reality that not every American's vote is equal (if you have any doubt, ask Sheldon Adelson). Yet we behave as if that's the case.

Likewise, it's important to organize our elections with the understanding that voters will adapt their thinking, and consequently their votes, to new information. The campaign debate isn't over.  Locking up our votes early is a tacit admission that we have also locked up our minds.

How can that be good?

(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)

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