30% of us won’t wait until November 2 to vote

Why wait for the down-to-the wire candidate debates, the editorial-page endorsements, the get-out-the-vote phone calls, or the final-weekend advertising and direct-mail blitz? Apparently, that’s what as many as 30 percent of American voters are asking themselves, as they take advantage of early-voting rules in 30 states this year.

According to the New York Times, Democratic and Republican party officials estimate that “at least a third of all ballots across the country will be cast before Election Day, “reflecting a steady rise in early voting that is profoundly influencing how political campaigns are conducted in many parts of the country.”

Starting dates for early voting vary. The earliest absentee voting started on September 14 in Kentucky, but that’s different. Leading the pack in early, in-person voting are Georgia, Maine and Vermont [Sept. 20], followed closely by South Dakota [Sept. 21]. To see where your state falls in the early-voting derby check out the graph at Early Voting Center.

The Times reports that the Democratic Party has seized the advantage in capitalizing on rules that allow voters to cast their ballots as far as six weeks in advance of Election Day. But Republicans are working hard to catch up, especially in states with close mid-term contests.

Rules vary among states, too. [No surprise there: States love to do things their own way, making standardization nearly impossible.]  “Over thirty states offer ‘no excuse’ early voting – voters in these states do not need to provide a reason for voting before election day.  A handful of states offer early voting only to voters who have a valid excuse for being unable to vote in person on election day,” says Long-Distance Voter.

In some states where early voting is not allowed, it’s probably safe to say that some voters stretch the rules for absentee voting as a de facto way of voting early. But technically, that’s not legal. You can find a state-by-state breakdown of early-voting rules at the Long-Distance Voter website.

The early-voting trend could upend much of conventional wisdom about the importance of the last few days of campaigns and could change long-held beliefs about end-of-campaign strategies. More early voting would take away the drama of last-minute negative revelations about opponents and could undercut intense, get-out-the-vote efforts. Advertising buys may change, as strategists frontload, rather than waiting for the final weekend of the campaign. People who vote early also miss out on news that breaks after they’ve cast their ballots.  [Case in point: Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan, who was running for US Senate, was killed in a plane crash just two weeks before the November 2000 election. Would early voting have changed the outcome? Actually, probably not: Missouri voters elected him posthumously with a 2% margin.]

Traditionalists object to the watering-down of the one-day “snapshot” that  a single, unified voting day provides. And, of course, there’s something very nostalgic, Norman-Rockwell-ian and romantically little-d democratic about the ritual of everyone going to the polls on the same day throughout the US.

But today’s voters like the early-voting option, so it’s not going away. A poll by Public Agenda revealed that:

The vast majority of the early voters we surveyed (86 percent) said it was a matter of convenience rather than necessity, frustration or a previous bad experience. And for many, there was also a sense of “why wait when I already know how I’m going to vote?” Three-quarters of the early voters said one reason for their choice was because they had already made up their mind.

From all the opinion data, the public is in a frustrated mood this year. And the nation’s system for casting and counting ballots has been controversial since the 2000 election. But so far, the simplest explanation for early voting seems to hold up: it’s just easier.

Who knows, maybe the term “Election Day” will become a political relic, replaced by “Election Month,” or “Election Timespan.”  We can only hope that single-day vote counting never goes out of style.  In the meantime, have you voted yet?