The 2008 presidential campaign has been chockablock with superlatives. Longest. Most expensive. First black nominee. A record number of registered voters. The most YouTubed. But one major change worth watching – with both joy and worry – is that a third of voters will have cast a ballot before Nov. 4, or double eight years ago.
Much can be said for early voting, either the old-fashioned kind – by absentee ballot sent in by mail with a legitimate excuse – and increasingly, voting by mail with no excuse or in-person a couple weeks before an election.
Who wants to compete for parking at voting places, stand in long lines, face bad weather, give up work time, or deal with Election Day procedural snafus? Democracy may be a responsibility and a duty but it shouldn't be a messy chore.
In Florida, so many people cast an early ballot last month that voting hours were extended. In some states with the newly allowed "no excuse" early voting, nearly half of registered voters have already "gone to the polls." The new convenience and an eagerness to vote in this exciting election may explain the high numbers.
Proponents of early voting say it increases turnout, especially among low-income voters. But experts who track this trend say evidence for increased voting has been slim. Rather, politicians especially like early voting. It allows them to "lock up" votes of dedicated supporters, saving money or sometimes influencing an election. Hillary Clinton may have won the Feb. 5 California primary because she focused on early balloting among women.
Legislatures in more than 30 states now allow the practice, mainly in the West and South. It helps relieve poll congestion and if more states require IDs at the voting time, early voting will allow more time to locate an ID.
Despite its many advantages, early voting has caused a few caution flags to be raised. For one, the opportunity for such votes to be lost, ignored, or altered is increased. While such slip-ups or fraud may not change an election, even the appearance of it is a danger. On Election Day, there are far more poll watchers to keep things honest.
Second, new facts about a candidate or a significant event like a stock market crash that emerge after early balloting may lead many of these voters to regret their choices. Those who voted early for John Edwards in the Feb. 5 primaries wasted a vote because he dropped out before voting day. This problem raises the question of whether early voting creates an inequality of information.
Third, while early voters are not representative of all voters, exit polls of these voters and other types of estimating tallies could sway regular voters not to vote. The media hold back reporting exit polls on Election Day, but maybe not so for estimates on early voting.
And lastly, what of the experience of sharing Election Day and this civic exercise of freedom? Voting itself may be done alone in a booth, but it's the one place Americans come together one day to reaffirm to one another a commitment to democracy.
Before the rush to early voting advances further, these many concerns must be weighed against the many advantages.