To NC Legislators: Rely on data, not anecdotes

A decade of reform since HAVA has led to many positive changes in American elections, not the least of which is that there are solid empirical data available to provide guidance to legislators and election officials who want to improve performance and conduct more efficient elections.

This is one of the goals of Doug Chapin and the team at the Election Academy and this is the topic of the Election Data Dispatches coming out of the Pew Center on the States.  Charles Stewart of MIT and Barry Burden of Wisconsin have been leading an initiative on Measuring State Election Performance that puts many of these indicators to use.

I realize that election reforms are seldom if ever non-partisan.  I am not naive about the intentions of political actors.  But I would at least hope that if a legislator is proposing a major change to the election system in a state, he or she would try to at least pretend to have some facts and not just make things up.

Unfortunately, fairy land seems to have descended upon the Tarheel State this past week. I suppose it’s all because Duke, UNC, and NCSU are out of the NCAA tournament.  (OK, that last comment was grossly unfair.)

Let’s take a selected list and ask if this claim can be substantiated:

Claim: State Sen. Bill Cook (R-Guilford) believes that few North Carolians vote in the first week of early voting:

Cook says his campaign took him to early voting sites in his rural district where there was rarely a line.

“I don’t think we need (the extra days),” he said. “The first week, you get lots of folks. The second week, nothing. It’s almost a desert.”

Fact: 58% of early voters, and 30% of all voters cast an early-in person ballot in the first week in 2012.

Claim: Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R-Rockingham County) says that “Sunday hasn’t traditionally been a voting day.”

Fact: No day has “traditionally been a voting day” other than Tuesday.  12 of the 32 states that provide early in-person voting mandate some voting on either Saturday or Sunda, while most other states allow local officials to make this choice.  It’s impossible without collecting detailed information at the county level to know just how many jurisdictions nationwide allowed Sunday voting, but it’s certainly not uncommon.  (The GAO issued a report on weekend voting just a few years ago on the topic of weekend voting.)

Claim: Greg Steele, chair of the NC Federation of College Republicans, says that cutting early voting in half will save money and 

would encourage people to research candidates before they vote.

“It would energize people into taking more time to be invested into what they’re voting for,” he said.

Fact: State Elections Director Gary Barlett takes on claim 1: “There is not going to be any savings at all by reducing the early voting period,” he said.

Claim two is hard to parse; apparently, people who vote in the first week of early voting don’t have enough time to research candidates, but voters in the second week do have enough time.  Steele expresses no concern about no-excuse absentee voters whose ballots are mailed out 45 days before the election.  What we do know from extensive research into the early voter is that these are voters who have already made up their minds and show no lower levels of political information or interest than Election Day voters (in fact, in most cases, quite the opposite).

Early voting is no an unalloyed good.  There are valid arguments that can be made against early voting.

The problem is that most of these reasons apply mainly to no-excuse absentee voting, not to early in-person voting, and the NC legislature seems unconcerned about by-mail ballots.