Reporter’s FAQ for Early Voting

I did some interviews in 2008… a LOT of interviews.  We lost track eventually, but the contacts were well past 500 and total appearances past 1000.  I’ve been doing a lot fewer this year, in part because I don’t have two assistants working for me–Eva is working in San Francisco for the World Affairs Council and James is at Boalt Law School.

A second reason, though, is that I’m fielding the same questions as I did four years ago.  We used to have an Early Voting FAQ that seems to have gotten lost in our website redesign.

In that spirit, the most common questions I get:

  1. How long has early voting existed?
    Absentee voting was created during the Civil War as both parties competed for the votes of the boys in blue, and was systematized during WWII.  John Fortier gives the best history of this.  What the reporters are really asking is when did no-excuse absentee and early in person voting begin: 1978 in California for the former, 1984 in Texas for the latter.  No-excuse absentee began as a West Coast innovation that spread eastward.  Early in-person has no pattern to adoption.
  2. Why do some states have early voting and other do not?
    I wish I had a historical crystal ball that would reveal the reasons why some states and regions adopted early voting and others did not.  While we have found some patterns–see (1) above–there is virtually nothing systematic.  Yes, Western states were early adopters of no-excuse absentee voting, but see Iowa and Tennessee as alternates.  We’ve looked at the legislative record in Texas, but there is almost no evidence of any substantial debate over early in-person voting.  A number of states (Florida, Georgia after 2000; Ohio after 2004) adopted early voting in response to electoral crises, but others adopt for any of a variety of reasons.
    This is the kind of answer a reporter does not like, but the reality is that there is no pattern to adoption that I can discern.
  3. When did (insert state) adopt (insert type of voting system)?
    I point interested parties to the dataset assembled by Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler and funded by the Pew Center on the States.  It’s the most comprehensive guide to adoption.
  4. Can a candidate “win” an election by “banking” early votes?
    I am highly skeptical of this claim.  Think of election turnout as a big pie.  If you take off a larger slice before the election, it just means that the remainder for election day is smaller. If you dominate the early vote, is may indicate that your supporters are more excited and that your campaign mobilization effort is superior.  Or it may indicate that you have harvested more of your votes early, and that your opponent will harvest more election day votes.  It’s just too contingent on the campaign and the state to make any broad statement.
  5. What happens if an early voter dies before election day?
    In most states that I am familiar with, the vote is counted.  Keep in mind two things.  First, the “vote” is almost always separated from the record of turnout.  So even if you did want to remove votes from the totals, you can’t in the case of an early in-person vote, and in the case where the absentee ballot is processed (signature checked, ballot separated from the envelope), there is no way to remove the vote.  Second, think through the implications of this.  A member of the military who casts a ballot early because the ballot has to transit across the globe and then is killed in combat–do you really want to suggest that this individual’s ballot not be counted?
  6. Does early voting benefit one party or the other?
    (Probably the most common question!)  Early voting can help a better funded campaign with a superior mobilization effort because it allows this campaign to bank votes early and redirect its efforts as the campaign proceeds.  (Cite Bob Stein here.)
    There are some partisan patterns to early voting; Democrats tend to use early in-person voting more frequently and Republicans tend to vote by mail.  My own belief is that these patterns have their roots in longstanding mobilization strategies and are not inherent to the mode of balloting.  The GOP built up direct mail lists in the last 1970s, for instance, and began to encourage absentee voting in the 80s.  Democrats came to the early voting game later, and the states they focused on happened to have a larger proportion of early in-person voters.
    But my own view is that focusing on partisan advantage is not the right way to think about early voting. It doesn’t stop virtually every reporter from asking!