Election 2020: Why ‘convenience’ voting is controversial, even in a pandemic
Although early voting is perceived to be new, it’s a long-standing practice to have voting take place over multiple days
NFL stadiums used by the San Francisco 49ers, the Carolina Panthers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were polling places this week.
In Harris County, Texas, voters were able to cast their ballots on Oct. 29 at eight voting centers that were open all night.
These are among the unusual opportunities for people to vote in an unusual year, but critics of early voting still exist, even during a pandemic.
“Elections should happen on Election Day, and at no other time,” conservative writer and podcaster Matt Walsh recently posted on Twitter.
Walsh is not alone in his disdain for early voting, sometimes called “convenience voting” or “no-excuse voting,” which is offered in a majority of states. Arguments against the practice have been made in publications as diverse as National Review and The Week.
Critics rarely oppose early voting for what they consider legitimate reasons, such as absentee ballots sent to armed services members deployed overseas. Rather, they object to early voting offered as a convenience for people who would rather not risk long lines on Election Day, saying that mail ballots are more vulnerable to fraud and coercion, among other reasons.
Writing for Politico, law professors Eugene Kontorovich and John McGinnis argued that early voting violates the integrity of a campaign’s space by inviting voters to choose before the campaign period has officially concluded. “Early voters are, in essence, asked a different set of questions from later ones; they are voting with a different set of facts,” Kontorovich and McGinnis wrote.
Americans who vote early also risk changing their mind if new information emerges after they voted.
President Donald Trump recently urged people who had voted for Biden, but liked Trump’s performance in the second debate to change their vote. But Wendy Underhill, director of elections and redistricting for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said a vote clawback is a difficult process and not offered by all states.
Here are the arguments for and against early voting, and why some analysts say the practice is here to stay.
History in the making
The Constitution gives states the right to set the “timing, place and manner” of elections, and there are wide range of options. For example, some states allow preelection voting as far out as 45 days before an election, others just the Friday before an election. The average starting time is three weeks before an election, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
According to Underhill, every state has some form of absentee ballot. Some states require a valid excuse, while others issue ballots for any reason. Increasingly, states also offer polling places where people can vote in advance, in order to accommodate people who are unable to vote in person on Election Day because of work or other reasons.
“Over the course of 20 years or more, states have been moving more and more toward preelection day voting. It’s a long-term trend. This year accelerated that trend because of COVID, and some of the states that require excuses have said concerns about COVID is an adequate excuse to vote absentee,” Underhill said. (Her organization catalogues policies specific to 2020 and other long-term state policies on its website.)
In general, Democrats have been more likely to favor preelection voting, Underhill said. “But there is by no means a clear, stark partisan line. Think about Utah having all-mail elections,” she said.
Utah is among states that mail ballots to every registered voter. In 2016, about 70% of Utah voters used absentee ballots or voted early or by mail, according to the NCSL. Fifteen other states also reported 50% or more votes cast in these ways that year.
Ryan Williamson, an assistant professor of political science at Auburn University, said there is little evidence that preelection voting favors one party over the other, and that contrary to expectation, more options don’t necessarily translate to more voters. “It just makes it easier for the people who usually participate to do so,” Williamson said.
While voter turnout appears to be on a trajectory to set records — a third of eligible voters had already voted by Wednesday — that’s probably because this is an unusual year with a president who has ignited strong partisan sentiment and the increased options for voting offered because of the pandemic, Williamson said.
“There are 69 million people who have voted as of today, which is absolutely historic, but the question is, are new people voting or are we just borrowing the votes from Election Day?”
From voice vote to drive-thru
While an expanded window of voting seems like a new phenomenon, a singular Election Day wasn’t established until 1845, and in some early elections, American voters (then only white men) had weeks to register their say.
In 1816, for example, voters choosing between Democratic Republican James Monroe and Federalist Rufus King had a span of 34 days in which they could submit a paper ballot they made themselves or declare their choice in public, a form of voting called “viva voce,” according to Kathleen Hale and Mitchell Brown’s book “How We Vote.”
Absentee voting began during the Civil War to enable soldiers in the field to vote for either Abraham Lincoln or George McClellan. But absentee voting without an excuse did not become an option until California adopted the policy in 1978, and Texas became the first state to offer early, in-person voting in 1988, prompting other states to follow.
By 2016, 40% of votes were by mail, absentee ballot or in-person early voting. That number is expected to be substantially higher this year, in part because of pandemic-driven innovations, such as drive-thru voting in Weber County, Utah, and 24-hour voting in Harris County, Texas.
There are some negatives to voting early, said Underhill, with the National Conference of State Legislatures; among them, the possibility of changing your mind. “It’s very difficult to get your vote back,” she said. And some people believe that there is a “sense of specialness” surrounding an election that is diluted when voting takes place over several weeks.
Also, more ballots are filled out incorrectly when done at home and it’s not possible to fix them, unlike at polling places. “If you’re in a polling place and you make a mistake, for example, if you fill in two bubbles for two presidents, the machine will kick it back out and you get a chance to redo it,” she said.
That said, Underhill herself has taken advantage of early voting in her home state, Colorado, which mails ballots to every registered voter. And David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, is adamant that there is no downside to early voting, which he says cuts the risk of fraud.
“If you have everyone voting at the same time, at the same place, on the same day, it’s very easy to disrupt that. If you have a lot of people voting over a long time, it’s very hard to concentrate an attack on a system in a way it can disrupt it significantly,” Becker said.
“There are no serious experts or people who work in voting who think it’s a good idea to concentrate our voting in a 12-hour period on Election Day alone.”
Although the president recently tweeted that people who voted for Biden early and then regretted it after the second debate should claw back their ballot, Becker said there’s no evidence that this is a problem, especially this year. “There are, like, seven voters still trying to make up their mind, and people who are on the fence are going to wait until the last minute.”
And he credits early voters for ensuring that Tuesday’s vote will run smoothly. “The American voter is saving this election,” Becker said. “They are showing up in large numbers, getting their votes in, preventing adversaries from affecting them with disinformation or causing problems at the last minute, and reducing lines for people who prefer to vote on Election Day.”
The whole idea of people voting before the campaigns have even concluded, while the candidates are still making their cases, while debates are still on the schedule, is madness. Completely crazy. No defending it.— Matt Walsh (@MattWalshBlog) October 26, 2020