One of the stranger trends in American elections is the adoption of various forms of early voting. It has always been possible to get an absentee ballot that can be cast by mail, which is important for those who are traveling, deployed, have mobility issues, or are otherwise unable to get to the polls on election day. But in addition to the traditional absentee ballot, in many states you can now cast an in-person ballot weeks—sometimes even months—before the purported day of the election.
The argument in favor of these accommodations is that it makes it easier for more people to vote . . . and, in and of itself, that’s probably a good thing (as long as we take reasonable steps to ensure the integrity of the ballot and the identity of the voter). But it also presents a serious problem that gets far too little attention.
Consider, for example, the voters who cast a ballot for now-President Donald Trump (R) on or before October 6, 2016. The next day, the infamous Access Hollywood tape was released, with audio of Trump’s crass comments about how, “When you’re a star, [women] let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.” Voters after October 7 had this new information about Trump, which may have influenced some of their decisions. In a very real way, voters who had already cast their ballots were at a disadvantage.
If Trump’s comments had changed their minds, in some states they were stuck. Their ballot was already irreparably cast. In some states there are ways to change an early ballot, but it is not always easy, and many did not even know they had the option . . . or how to use it.
The chances that something will happen in the last month or two before an election to change my planned votes are pretty slim . . . but they are not zero. And so it is in my best interest, as an informed voter, to vote on election day unless I have some very good reason to do it earlier. That ensures that I will have as much information as possible available to me when I cast my ballot. Of course something could still happen after election day that would have changed my vote had it occurred earlier, but in that case I am in the same boat as all other voters. I am not any more or less disadvantaged than anybody else in that scenario.
To deal with this and other issues, I’d like to see some reforms made to how we handle early voting (and voting in general).
First, the voting time window should be much smaller than it has gotten in some states. I don’t support going back to the days where your only options are to vote absentee or to show up on the one day, but the standard balloting period should be no longer than one week. Four days including a weekend would be even better . . . say, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. It’s much less likely that major, vote-changing events will occur in four days than in four weeks . . . or four months.
Second, absentee ballots should only be made available to those who are traveling for that entire period, have a medical impediment, are deployed with the military, or have some other really good reason. This is one of the things I think Virginia does right . . . absentee ballots are (in theory) only issued with cause. Implementing this nationwide would mean more people would be voting in the defined balloting period, and fewer would cast absentee ballots. This seems like a fair compromise between the competing interests of ease-of-access and ensuring that as many voters as possible have access to roughly the same set of information.
Third, the “main” election day, which would still be Tuesday, should be made a federal and state holiday, and businesses in non-service industries should be strongly encouraged to make it a company holiday as well. Every business, including those in the service industry, should be required by state laws to give every employee at least one of the days in the voting period off as a paid holiday . . . some may choose to close on election day and give everybody that one day off, but others could schedule their workers to different days off so they could still operate over the election days.
Fourth, rather than expanding the window of time in an effort to increase turnout, we should take other reasonable steps to make voting easier. Of course a voter identification system is necessary to ensure the integrity of the ballot (and is used in every democratic republic except parts of ours), but aside from that there should be minimal impediments. One major reform I’d like to see is that voters should not have to appear at one specific precinct to vote. They should be able to go to any voting location in their state and cast a ballot.
Fifth, to support a voting system like I’m describing, we would need to switch to electronic voting . . . or, at minimum, a system where ballots are printed on-the-fly for each voter, since a voter in one precinct may decide it’s more convenient to vote in another and the contents of each ballot may be different.
I like electronic voting systems . . . but the law should require that their software be open source and subject to review by any citizen, and that there is a method for each voter to verify that their vote was counted correctly (e.g., via a uniquely generated verification number that is provided to each voter on a printed receipt but not tied to their name or voter ID). Transparency is the key if we want the public to trust electronic balloting. Let the parties and the PAC’s inspect the software and we can ensure that no funny business is going on, and give the voters have the opportunity to verify their vote after the fact as another check on the system’s integrity.
And once we have a really good, trustworthy electronic voting system, maybe we could start talking about upgrading it into an online or remote voting system that eliminates the need for either absentee ballots or voting precinct locations. But given how backwards we’re being about a lot of these things, I don’t think that will happen any time soon.
Anyway . . . vote. But don’t vote yet. Vote on election day.