To the delight of anyone who’s ever waited in line to cast a vote, a bipartisan election commission convened by President Barack Obama concluded last week that states across the country should increase their use of early voting. As the Presidential Commission on Election Administration notes in its new report, “no excuse” early voting — meaning it is open even to those who don’t qualify for an absentee ballot — has grown rapidly in recent decades in what the commission called a “quiet revolution.” In the 2012 election, almost one-third of ballots were cast early — more than double those cast in 2000 — and 32 states now permit the practice, allowing citizens to vote an average of 19 days before Election Day. The commission rightly notes that early voting has its advantages for individual voters — not just avoiding long lines, but in many cases also getting to vote on weekends without having to miss work or school. But early voting run amok is bad for democracy. The costs to collective self-governance — which the report refers to only in passing, in a single sentence — substantially outweigh the benefits. Instead of expanding the practice, we should use this moment as an opportunity to establish clear limits on it before it becomes the norm.
Why? For all its conveniences, early voting threatens the basic nature of citizen choice in democratic, republican government. In elections, candidates make competing appeals to the people and provide them with the information necessary to be able to make a choice. Citizens also engage with one another, debating and deliberating about the best options for the country. Especially in an age of so many nonpolitical distractions, it is important to preserve the space of a general election campaign — from the early kickoff rallies to the last debates in October — to allow voters to think through, together, the serious issues that face the nation.
The integrity of that space is broken when some citizens cast their ballots as early as 46 days before the election, as some states allow. A lot can happen in those 46 days. Early voters are, in essence, asked a different set of questions from later ones; they are voting with a different set of facts. They may cast their ballots without the knowledge that comes from later candidate debates (think of the all-important Kennedy-Nixon debates, which ran from late September 1960 until late October); without further media scrutiny of candidates; or without seeing how they respond to unexpected national or international news events — the proverbial “October surprise.” The 2008 election, for example, could have ended differently had many voters cast their ballots before the massive economic crisis that followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers that September. Similarly, candidates often seek to delay the release of embarrassing information, or the implementation of difficult policies, until after votes have been cast. A wave of votes starting months before the election date makes this easier.