The Magazine

Convenience Voting

The end of Election Day.

Nov 20, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 10 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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AT LEAST you have to give John Fortier credit for trying. Last week, while every other political scientist and scandal-sniffing, goo-goo reformer was lamenting run-of-the-mill Election-Day difficulties--long lines, hiccuppy voting machines, bullying and incompetent poll workers--Fortier was trying to draw attention to a problem that is far more consequential, and far more radical: Election Day itself is about to disappear.

Fortier is a political scientist with the American Enterprise Institute. A few weeks ago he published a new book, Absentee and Early Voting: Trends, Promises, and Perils. The book's thesis is as follows: Thanks to such recent election reforms as early voting, vote-by-mail, and unrestricted access to absentee ballots--together known as
"convenience voting"--"our nation is steadily moving away from voting on election day." Early estimates suggest that one in four votes this year was cast before November 7. The percentage has increased with every national election since 1980.

Voting by mail is now mandatory in Oregon, and nearly half of California voters cast their ballots absentee; in Washington state the figure hovers around 70 percent. Thirty years ago every state required voters to certify an excuse for obtaining an absentee ballot--illness, business travel, or other obligations, like school, that would place the voter out of state on Election Day. Nearly half the states now have "no-excuses" absentee voting, and all but twelve have dropped the once-universal requirement that absentee ballots be notarized or witnessed by a third party. Other states are expanding a category called "permanent absentee voter," a designation once reserved for shut-ins and the permanently disabled, who automatically received an absentee ballot every election year; now the category includes anybody who claims it. Experiments in Internet voting are underway in several localities. As reformers busily spread their voting reforms from one state to the next, it's not hard to imagine a time in the not-too-distant future when what we now call Election Day, the day when voters vote, will merely signify the day when voters finally stop voting. Precinct polling places will be a quaint memory.

Many fine, morally upright, patriotic Americans might welcome the demise of Election Day, for understandable reasons. Anyone who watched the grinding TV coverage on Election Night, with political analysts pronouncing extemporaneously on the election's larger meaning--the unspeakable lecturing the impressionable about the unknowable--will be happy to have any excuse to force them to, please God, stop talking, and if we have to eliminate Election Day for that to happen, then okay. But as Fortier notes, the radical change in the way Americans vote has been undertaken for motives that are much more arguable. Worse, the change is being accomplished without much debate or reflection about its consequences, even though these touch on elemental questions of citizenship and civic obligation.

Reformers are contradictory people, forever unsettled and dissatisfied with the status quo and, at the same time, imperturbably complacent about their ability to fix it. They hate to hear that a reform has unintended consequences, and they especially hate to hear that the reform not only doesn't work but might actually do the opposite of what it is supposed to do. So it is with convenience voting. Early voting and the other reforms were designed for two explicit purposes. The first was to increase voter turnout, which reformers always believe is too low, no matter how high it is. The second was to make the franchise more accessible to habitual nonvoters, and thus make the voting electorate more representative of the voting-age population as a whole.

Neither of these objects has been achieved. When Oregon reformers, for instance, claimed that mail-in voting had vastly increased turnout there, Curtis Gans of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate pointed out that this wasn't so: In fact, the first mail-in election, the 2000 presidential primary in Oregon, had the lowest turnout for any Oregon presidential primary. "Oregon has always had turnout levels between nine and ten percentage points higher than the national average," Gans wrote recently. "Mail voting has done nothing to change this situation." Elsewhere, early voting and no-excuse absentee voting have had worse than no effect; they actually seem to lower turnout. There are various explanations why. In states with extended voting periods, for example, each political party spread its mobilization efforts over several weeks rather than concentrating them in a single day, diminishing their impact and rousting fewer voters to the polls. "In years of increased national turnout," Gans found, "no-excuse absentee states experienced lesser increases. In years of declines, no-excuse absentee states experienced greater decline."