In recent years American voters are rediscovering a way of voting used during the country’s first half-century of existence. I’m talking about early voting. Since the early 1990s, the number voters who cast their ballots prior to Election Day has steadily risen from less than a tenth to about a third. The rise is fueled by two phenomenon. More states are offering early voting options, and once a state adopts early voting more people vote early a part of their election regimen. As voters cast their ballots prior to Election Day, they may be surprised to learn they are walking in the shoes of the nation’s founders. At the founding, voting was held over several days so that rural voters could have ample time to travel to town and county courthouses to cast their ballots. An extended voting period could not be disrupted greatly by unexpected weather that made rural river crossings impassable. In other words, early voting was matter of convenience. Two centuries later, convenience continues to be the rallying cry of early voting advocates. Just as an argument for early voting echoes through time, so does an argument against. In 1845, the federal government set a uniform, single day for voting for president: the familiar first Tuesday following the first Monday in November. Among the arguments for a single day was that it would prevent people from crossing state lines to vote more than once. Today, politicians speak of early voting as one way by which elections can be “rigged.”
An investigation into Georgia’s Election Administration claims that state officials at the highest levels have engaged in a “long-term assault on voting rights.” The report by Allied Progress – a national non-profit group – found that officials were systematically making it more difficult for minorities, the elderly, disabled, and low-income voters to cast ballots.The scathing report accuses Georgia’s Secretary of State and Governor of pushing suppression efforts, which include: Strict voter ID requirements, Proof of citizenship, Reduced early voting, and Felon voting right restrictions. Karl Frisch, Executive Director of Allied Progress, joined Roland Martin on NewsOne Now and said, “You’ve got an election administration process from the top on down to the bottom where people have admitted to their partisan motivation and when they thought no one was looking, they sometimes say in public or on social media absolutely racially abhorrent things.” By Frisch’s account, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp said, “If minorities get registered to vote, they could beat Republicans.” He continued, “As if it would be a bad thing for minorities to get registered to vote.”
Election Day starts this week. Beginning on Sept. 23, any Minnesotan can go to a local election office and complete an absentee ballot. The following Thursday, voters in neighboring Iowa have the same opportunity. Between Oct. 20-24, North Carolina, Nevada, and Florida get in the game. In Colorado, the entire election will be conducted by mail ballot. By the constitutionally mandated first Tuesday after a Monday in November, more than one-third of Americans will have already voted for president. There are still battleground states that make no provision for early voting—Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New Hampshire stand out for their old-fashioned ways—but in those that do it has created a new kind of electoral arms race. Early voting is a particular gift to well-organized, well-funded campaigns, which can extend their turnout operations across as long as six weeks, locking down precise factions of the electorate in domino-like fashion, and sequence their persuasion efforts with a clear view of who has yet to vote. Building on the ground-game innovations of President Barack Obama’s two successful efforts, Hillary Clinton’s campaign has reshuffled its entire org chart with the election timetable in mind, grouping early-voting states together so that get-out-the-vote efforts can happen on an accelerated, exacting schedule.
An “overall victory” is what voting rights advocates are calling North Carolina counties’ new early voting plans. They were finalized last week following the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal’s July ruling, which a divided U.S. Supreme Court let stand, striking down the battleground state’s so-called “monster” election law that among other things slashed a week from the 17-day early voting period. In a 12-hour meeting on Sept. 8, the N.C. State Board of Elections resolved contested early voting plans from 33 of the state’s 100 county election boards, all of which are controlled by Republicans. (Under North Carolina law, the governor’s party holds two of every county election boards’ three seats.) Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the state Republican Party, had urged county board members to limit early voting and keep polling sites closed on Sundays — what he called “party line changes.”
Of all the states that rushed to restrict voting after the Supreme Court’s disastrous 2013 ruling to strike down key Voting Rights Act protections, North Carolina moved the most aggressively. It enacted multiple voter-suppression measures, including voter-ID requirements, restrictions on early voting, and an end to same-day registration, Sunday voting, and pre-registration for teenagers. The day the law was signed, the ACLU and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice filed suit on the grounds that the statute discriminated against minority voters in violation of the 14th and 15th Amendments. After a bumpy ride through the lower courts, the law landed in August before the Supreme Court, which upheld a three-judge federal appeals court panel’s finding that its voter ID-provisions were unconstitutional. As Judge Diana Motz wrote in the three-judge panel’s unanimous decision, the requirements “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
The Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to restore a period of early voting in Ohio during which people could register and vote on the same day. The court’s brief order came in response to an emergency application from Democratic groups. There were no noted dissents. The case, Ohio Democratic Party v. Husted, No. 16A223, has its roots in the 2004 general election, when Ohio voters faced exceptionally long lines, leaving them, in the words of one court, “effectively disenfranchised.” In response, the state adopted a measure allowing in-person early voting in the 35 days before Election Day. As registration in the state closes 30 days before Election Day, the measure introduced a brief period, known as the Golden Week, in which voters could register and vote at the same time.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court decided not to reinstate Ohio’s “Golden Week,” a period in which Ohio residents could register to vote and cast their ballots on the same day. It’s just the latest in a string of contentious voting rights issues in the Buckeye State. The Golden Week came into effect after the 2004 presidential election, when excessively long lines on Election Day disenfranchised Ohio voters. As Mother Jones explained in 2005:
It turns out the Franklin County Board of Elections had reduced the number of voting machines in urban precincts — which held more African American voters and were likely to favor John Kerry — and increased the number of machines in white suburban precincts, which tended to favor the president. As a result, as many as 15,000 voters in Franklin County left without casting ballots, the Washington Post estimated.
In response, the state instituted, among other reforms, a 35-day early voting period. Since the last day to register to vote in Ohio came 30 days before the elections, voters had a five-day window where they could simultaneously register and vote before the general registration deadline.
In a pair of court decisions that could help Donald Trump, Ohioans’ voting rights were pared back Tuesday for the 2016 presidential election. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review an appeals court panel’s 2-1 ruling throwing out Golden Week, the period in which Ohioans could both register to vote and cast an early ballot. Several hours later a separate but equally divided panel of that same Cincinnati-based appellate court largely upheld restrictions enacted by the GOP-dominated legislature in 2014 and signed by Republican Gov. John Kasich. All that reshaped the Ohio electoral landscape to one less favorable to minority and Democratic voters — and thus presumably more to Trump’s liking.
Advocates of expanded early voting opportunities are considering legal action after a mixed bag of victories and losses at Thursday’s State Board of Elections meeting. During a 12-hour meeting Thursday to settle disputed early voting schedules in 33 counties, the state board restored Sunday early voting hours in five counties that had offered the option in 2012. It also added early voting hours in six counties where schedules had been cut, mandating more locations in Wake and Mecklenburg counties to prevent long lines. But in party line votes, the board’s Republican majority rejected efforts by Democrats to add Sunday voting in counties that hadn’t previously offered it and extend early voting hours in more counties. Early voting schedules have prompted bitter partisan disputes this year. With tight races expected for president, governor and U.S. Senate in North Carolina, strong turnout could be the key to victory.
North Carolina’s state elections board settled a deeply partisan battle over this fall’s election rules on Thursday, largely rejecting a Republican-led effort to write local voting guidelines that would limit Democratic turnout in a political battleground state. The board’s decisions could influence the course of voting in a state where races for governor and United States senator are close, and where the two major presidential candidates are said to be dead even. After meeting for more than 11 hours, the Republican-controlled board imposed new election plans that expanded voting hours or added polling places — or sometimes both — in 33 of the state’s 100 counties. In the vast bulk of the counties, the sole Democratic member on the three-person election board was contesting voting rules that the Republican majority had approved.