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For Better or Worse, Early Voting is Changing American Elections

In the US, “Election Day 2018” falls on November 6 this year. But Election Day isn’t what it used to be.

The New York Times reports that “millions have voted early” — nearly a million of them by mail in the Sunshine State alone, even before that state’s early voting locations opened on October 22, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.  I cast my ballot during what I expected to be an “off” time (after the pre-work rush and before the lunch rush), and still spent a few minutes in line.

More than 1/3 of the 2016 vote came in early according to the United States Election Project. This may be the first US election in which a majority of votes are cast before Election Day.  And the results may be set in stone before then, too.

Politicians and pollsters seem obsessed with the putatively “undecided” vote, but let’s be honest: The guy who doesn’t know who he’s voting for two days before the election hasn’t been paying attention and probably isn’t going to bother standing in line just to register what amounts to a coin flip.

The real political goal is getting one’s “base” voters — the people who are firmly “decided” and probably were before the parties even nominated their candidates — off their butts and to the polls.  Early voting makes that a lot easier.

When I was younger, you either got in line — sometimes for hours — on Election Day, or certified in writing (under penalty of perjury) that you planned to be out of the county on Election Day as a condition of casting an absentee ballot.

On Election Day itself, the party organizations busted out phone banks to call voters they perceived as part of their “bases.” Have you voted yet? Why haven’t you voted yet? Do you need a ride to the polling place? Go vote!

These days, such efforts can be spread over weeks rather than hours, reducing the number of volunteers needed. Voters can cast their ballots when they find it convenient instead of wasting their lunch hours standing in line on one, and only one, day.

Early voting magnifies the incidence and effect of the “base” vote by getting the “decided, but kinda lazy” in on the action. The “undecideds” aren’t the ones casting their votes early. They’re undecided, remember?

Early voting also probably reduces the parties’ ability to leverage “October surprises” into changed minds. How many Americans had already voted before Donald Trump could menace them with migrant caravans or his Democratic opponents had time to wave the bloody shirt over the “suspected explosive devices” mailed to prominent members of their party?

Finally, early voting will hopefully continue to increase the share of the vote commanded by “third party” and independent candidates, whose followings are smaller but presumably more likely to vote anyway,  especially if it’s easier.

Is America really more “polarized” than it used to be, or is early voting just making it easier to separate out the “undecided” statistical chaff? Inquiring minds want to know.

 

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Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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