One of this election's bright spots: early voting

In some states, two-thirds of voters have turned in their ballots. The surge suggests Americans particularly value their role in the electoral process when stakes are high.

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Voters wait to cast their ballot at a satellite polling station in Las Vegas on Nov. 2. Early voter turnout is set to hit record highs this year as more Americans than ever head to the polls ahead of Election Day, experts say.

Every Election Day for as long as he can remember, Angel Del Carpio would head to the polls and cast his vote.

He did it when he lived in California and New York. Now a resident of Nevada – a closely watched swing state – Mr. Del Carpio decided to make an early appearance this year. The Wednesday before the election, the retired hairdresser drove to The Boulevard Mall, about three miles east of The Strip, to vote at a polling station set up inside.

He walked away proud, having done his civic duty.

“I did my part,” says Del Carpio, holding up his “I voted” sticker. “It’s very important because our vote is what’s going to save this country.”

“And it’s very convenient,” he says about voting early.

Del Carpio's ballot is one of more than 34 million already cast ahead of the election this year via in-person, mail-in, or absentee ballots. The figure is on its way to topping 50 million and setting a record for votes cast before Election Day, according to the Pew Research Center.

Early voter turnout remains a questionable indicator of victory. But the surge in early voting may suggest that Americans continue to value their role in the electoral process, particularly when they perceive that the stakes are high, political analysts say. And voters are eager to take advantage of ways that make it easier for them to play their part, they add.

“People want to choose the most convenient thing, especially if they’re anticipating long lines” on Election Day, says David Damore, professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

In this election in particular, he says, Democrats and Republicans alike tend to see a win for the other side as an existential threat. “The importance of the outcome looms over most people,” Dr. Damore says. “That may not fire enthusiasm, but it becomes important to people to participate.”

As voting options expand, the percentage of voters nationwide casting their ballots early have soared from about 11 percent in 1996 to 33 percent in 2012, Pew reports. Data for 2016 suggests the trend will hold. In states such as Nevada and Colorado, nearly half the total electorate had already cast their votes five days before the election, says Paul Gronke, founder and director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Portland, Ore. In Tennessee and Arizona, nearly two thirds have turned in their ballots. 

“That’s the biggest story, the earliness,” Professor Gronke says. His theory as to why is somewhat less optimistic: “People are very unhappy with this campaign. They want to get it over with.”

The notion of casting ballots ahead of Election Day has been around since the Civil War, when Republicans – in an effort to secure the soldier vote for Abraham Lincoln – pushed for legislation to allow servicemen to cast their vote while away from their home states.

Early voting for convenience, however, took shape only in the 1970s: first when Congress passed a law allowing overseas voters without legal homes in the US to mail in their ballots, and then when California introduced a “no-excuses” law that let any registered voter cast an absentee ballot. By the 1980s, Oregon had adopted the country’s first vote-by-mail election system, sending registered voters ballots that they could either mail in or drop off in person.

Today, 37 states and the District of Columbia allow some form of early voting. 

The shift makes sense, says Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. The democratic ideal is to make it as easy as possible for people to participate, he says. In an earlier era, that meant face-to-face communication at an appointed time and place.

That’s no longer the case today, Professor Schnur notes.

“You don’t have to go to your bank to withdraw money. You don’t have to harvest your food before dinner,” he says. “Even without crossing the divide into online voting – which is an idea of debatable value – there’s no reason in the world that a voter should be required to cast their ballot at a single precinct location.”

For some Las Vegas voters, the expansion of early voting – and laws that require employers to give workers time to vote – provides a chance to reaffirm their role in the democratic process.

“We’re fortunate to get to do it on the clock,” says Belinda, a hotel employee who declined to give her last name. She and two of her coworkers had arrived at a polling station about a mile off The Strip on a charter bus that takes hotel workers to and from the site.

“It makes a big difference,” she says. “Our voices are being heard.”

Some say the main draw is the luxury of getting in their ballots minus the hassle of Election Day crowds – particularly in a race as volatile as this one.

“With everybody split up the way they are, the country’s going to be crazy” come Nov. 8, says Timothy Salmon, a father and video producer, as he left a satellite polling station in the parking lot of a local shopping center. Except for work, he says, “I don’t want to go out that day.”

For others, the chance to vote early simply means an easy way to fulfill a sense of obligation. After all, voters had only to go online to find the site closest to their home or workplace.

“It was very fast. I thought it was going to be more difficult,” says Raul Sanchez, who plays in a mariachi band. Though in his 50s, Mr. Sanchez is a first-time voter, spurred to the polls by a desire to see someone who isn’t Donald Trump win the White House. Sanchez says the experience left him encouraged – and inspired him to take part in future elections.

That Nevada is a swing state has also led residents here to feel more keenly the weight of each individual vote.

“We have to make the election count,” says Del Carpio, the retired hairdresser.

“This is a state where your vote actually matters,” adds Alex Zachary, who works at the Marquee, a popular nightclub, as he inched forward in line. “I want to make sure I have my say.”

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