A number of Northeast states are considering adding or expanding early voting, according to a story in The Hill.
I hope that administrators and legislators in the states make sure they make a decision based on comprehensive and accurate information and not rely on anecdote.
Most importantly, early voting has a complicated relationship to overall voter turnout. Most studies show a small but positive relationship, though one prominent study reports a negative relationship. If you put in more early voting locations, more citizens vote early (but it’s not clear if more voters overall cast a ballot).
Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler put it best in a recent blog posting (in the context of voter registration laws): higher turnout depends mostly on parties and candidates, not on changes to voting laws.
The point? New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner is quoted in the story and his statement reflects many common misconceptions about early voting:
“We’re seeing turnout nationally go down in each of the last three elections even as more and more states rush to make it easier to vote by having early voting,”
Misconception 1: there has been no “rush” to add early voting options since 2008. The rate of states adding early voting provisions has slowed substantially as we get down the final 13 holdouts (according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 37 states plus DC offered some form of early voting in 2016, compared to 36 plus DC in 2012, and 34 in 2008).
Misconception 2: turnout has not declined for the last three cycles. Final totals in 2016 appear to be slightly up from 2012 and about 2% lower than 2008.
Misconception 3: national turnout is the best way to understand the impact of state and local laws. National totals disguise enormous variation in turnout between and within states, competitiveness in statewide races, and differences in rules and laws. There is also some scattered evidence that early voting benefits some subpopulations more than others, and this can be overlooked in national and even statewide totals.
The second point in the article is harder to address: the costs of early voting. Michael McDonald suggests that there is resistance to early voting in the Northeast because most of these states administer elections at the township level. McDonald is right to highlight the importance of providing sufficient funding to jurisdictions to conduct elections, regardless of what options are offered (budgets were the most common point of discussion at a recent NCSL gathering).
All I’d add here is that we don’t have a clear sense of how much early voting costs, and whether cost savings can be obtained by strategically reallocating resources between early voting and election day voting (though mis-forecasts of voting turnout can turn disastrous).
The takeaway is that states considering adding early voting options should consider them mostly on the grounds of voter convenience, on how well the options can be adapted to the conditions faced by local jurisdictions, and only lastly on how they may increase overall turnout.