Why not make early voting the only way to vote?
This week started early voting for municipal elections across Texas, including San Antonio. The dates are from April 27th to May 5th with hours and locations listed by the Bexar County Election Department. The date for the general election is scheduled for May 9th, a Saturday. With this many options to vote there is really no excuse for San Antonians to not vote in the municipal election. Unfortunately a majority of eligible San Antonio residents will not vote in the election. In 2005 the last year of a hotly contested mayoral race only 17.73% of the electorate voted in the election. In 2007 that figure was even worse at 10.16% with an incumbent Mayor Hardberger running for re-election. While early voting doesn’t seem to improve the turnout it could reduce the cost in staging the election.
In 2005 slightly more voters cast their ballots on election day instead of early voting. However, in 2007 that figure shifted with more people casting their ballot in early voting. That trend continued in 2008 for the Presidential Election and should continue this year for the municipal election. In other words, more and more people are taking advantage of early voting to cast their ballot during a time that is convenient to them at a location that is convenient. Yet we still seem to want to operate and staff hundreds of polling places on election day at a substantial cost. While we want to provide the opportunity for every Bexar County resident to vote who is eligible, how does it make sense to operate a single day election other than the fact that it’s traditional when you have several days of early voting?
Some have tried to attribute early voting as a strength for one political party or another. However, in research conducted by Professor Paul Gronke of the Early Voting Information Center early voting doesn’t really benefity one party over another. In fact it really only benefits a campaign that has established a good ground force ahead of early voting. By motivating voters to engage early a campaign can “bank the vote” and avoid losing that vote due to circumstances (conflicts, change of heart, etc.). Early voting also helps campaigns educate voters on where they can vote, ususally a much smaller list of locations than election day.
That brings us to the real point in eliminating election day voting. Early voting typically concentrates voters to a much smaller number of sites compared to election day voting. Even with precinct consolidation the sheer number of sites is overwhelming compared to early voting sites. There is also a cost to transport the equipment, pay the voting judges, and deal with any logistical issues at the sites with very little spare time. An election site at a precinct HAS to be right when the doors open since there is almost no other options to leverage. Early voting allows the elections department time to set up and test the site well before the doors ever open.
So why do we keep election day sites? It’s not because of convenience. In fact in many cases it is less convenient than an early voting site. Voters have a limited window to exercise their right. Employers are good about allowing employees time off to vote but that does result in an expense to the employer. Often voters will vote in the window before work, at lunch, or after work when crowds become more concentrated. If a line is too long voters might decide the waiting is just not worth it and leave. With early voting the voter can leave but has the option to come back another day or visit another site.
If we eliminated election day voting those voters who traditionally voted could arrange their schedule to vote early. In many cases, they choose not to primarily out of principle rather than convenience. That’s probably the last reason we should ever claim when looking at this problem. I know some will take issue with that statement but if we can reduce the costs of conducting elections it can only be a good thing for our democracy and jurisdictions.
One other option to consider might be postal only voting such as Oregon’s elections are run. This has significantly reduced the cost of voting in the state and has really provided a greater convenience for voters. I don’t think Texas is quite ready for this type of election but things could change as the cost of elections continues to increase. Finally, many will bring up Internet voting as the way to go. While I would like to spend time researching this option I’d prefer to leave it to another entry. There are many, many issues associated with Internet voting that would have to be addressed. It is reasonable to consider in a day and age where we readily give our credit card information out over the Internet to buy the most arcane items. I just don’t think we’re ready as an electorate to take the Internet only voting route.
So where will this discussion go? Probably not very far. It was a result of a conversation with a colleague of mine at work and drove me to dig into it a little more. Hopefully it will start some discussion and we might move to this option. Until then, I encourage you to do as we do in Texas – “vote early and vote often.”