Early and Absentee Voting Erode Election Day Tradition

By: - November 2, 2010 12:00 am

Over the past few years, it’s become clear that today — Election Day — isn’t as important as it used to be. Traditional polling places appear to be dying off, as more and more voters cast their ballots early.

But the full story is more complicated than that. What’s going on is not just a competition between traditional precinct voting and early voting, but also a competition between very different ways to vote early. Oregon and Washington State already vote entirely by mail, and Montana and Colorado seem slowly but surely headed toward doing that. Others states, such as Georgia, have embraced in-person early voting. They seem content with the balance they’ve struck, a balance in which the traditional role of Election Day will endure to some degree.


Like the rest of the country, Vermont and Georgia saw many thousands of voters cast their ballots before Election Day in 2010. But, unlike the rest of the country, Vermont and Georgia may be voting after election day, too. That’s because the two states both have rules that require candidates for governor and some other offices to receive more than 50 percent of the vote to be elected outright. If no one gets a majority, voting continues.

In Vermont, the ultimate decision would be in the hands of just 180 voters: those in the newly elected General Assembly. They’d vote by secret ballot in January, with each member of each chamber receiving a single vote. In other words, it’s possible that Vermont won’t know who the new governor is for two months. “It’d be horribly disruptive,” says Doug Racine, who placed second in the 2002 governor’s race and promptly conceded defeat. “There’d be a lot of politics.” Vermont lawmakers periodically have discussed changing the rule, which is in the state constitution, but haven’t been able to decide what to replace it with.

This year, there’s a decent chance that the General Assembly will have to weigh in on a governor’s race for the first time since 2002. Polls show the contest between Republican Brian Dubie, the state’s lieutenant governor, and Democrat Peter Shumlin, the Senate’s president pro tempore, to be exceptionally tight.

Shumlin and Dubie are joined on the ballot by five independent and third-party candidates, none of whom appear to be credible contenders. Still, even if the other candidates only collect a couple of percentage points of the vote, they could force the General Assembly to decide.

In that case, legislators may have a difficult choice. Should they vote for the candidate who won the most votes statewide, the one who carried the lawmaker’s own district or the one who seems likely to make the best governor? Legislators are divided. Many of them are reluctant to commit to a particular course of action. Democrats are expected to retain a majority in the General Assembly, which means that if Shumlin takes the most votes, he’s almost certain to be the next governor. The scenario gets interesting, says Eric Davis, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Middlebury College, if Dubie prevails by just a few hundred votes. If Dubie were to win by a thousand votes or more, Davis thinks the Legislature would feel compelled to choose him. “I think a thousand vote margin is a psychological threshold,” Davis says.

As for Georgia, it used to have Vermont’s rule, but a controversial governor’s race in 1966 in which the Legislature picked the second-place candidate prompted a switch. Today, the state holds a true runoff election open to all voters.The change has helped the G.O.P., thanks to the party’s more committed base — turnout tends to plummet for the runoffs. No Democrat ever has won a statewide runoff against a Republican in Georgia, even in cases when the Democrat won a plurality in the first round.

In the race for governor this year, Republican Nathan Deal has led Democrat Roy Barnes. But Deal has struggled to crack the 50-percent threshold in polls. Libertarian John Monds’ candidacy makes it possible Deal will fall short on Election Day, which would create the first gubernatorial election ever to go to a runoff.

As with many American traditions, Election Day’s roots aren’t as deep as people often assume. Congress didn’t actually mandate that presidential elections be held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November until 1845. Only 19 years later, Election Day’s importance seemed to wane. Absentee balloting, in the form of votes from Union troops in the field, helped reelect Abraham Lincoln. Even after Congress mandated a uniform date for congressional elections in 1875, states could hold their own elections when they pleased. Maine, for example, moved its governor’s race to November only in 1960. Before then, the September election was considered a barometer of the national political mood, leading to a popular piece of political wisdom: “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.”

Still, early voting as we know it is a relatively recent phenomenon. For much of the last century, casting an absentee ballot required a justification. Only in 1978 did California begin to change that with no-excuse absentee balloting. About a decade later, Texas began leading states down a different track by embracing in-person early voting, even allowing ballots to be cast at convenience stores.

What’s happened since then is a self-reinforcing cycle of more and more early voting. State legislatures change rules to make it easier to vote early — today, 30 states allow no-excuse absentee voting. Then, partisans encourage people to cast their ballots before Election Day, hoping to bank as many votes as possible. Voters find being able to vote on a day of their choosing to be convenient. More legislators take notice and continue to liberalize the rules.

The result is that in 2008 only 70 percent of ballots were cast on Election Day at traditional precincts. This development is changing the rhythm of campaigns and altering the strategies of candidates. “We really don’t have October surprises anymore,” says Michael McDonald, a George Mason University political scientist who compiles statistics on early voting. “If you’re in an early voting state, you have to spring your surprise much earlier.”

Who needs precincts?

Montana reflects this trend. First, it moved to no-excuse absentee voting. Later, the state allowed voters to sign up to become “permanent absentees,” so that they would receive a mail ballot for all elections. Plus, the state authorized counties to begin conducting local elections fully by mail.

As more and more people voted by mail, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch and others wondered what, exactly, was the point of precincts. Precincts require poll workers, they demand expensive equipment and they must have access for the disabled. In a state that’s 147,000 square miles in size, traveling to a precinct never was very convenient for many people. If Montanans were happy voting by mail, why should the state suffer the expense and the administrative difficulties of precincts?

Legislation to do away with the precincts in favor of vote-by-mail stalled in the Legislature last year. This summer, McCulloch traveled to Oregon to see how the system worked there. Her trip did nothing to dissuade her. “What we found just overwhelmingly,” she says, “is that everyone loved having vote-by-mail in Oregon.” With bipartisan support — McCulloch is a Democrat and the Montana Republicans endorse vote-by-mail in their platform — the legislation has a very real chance of passing next year.

Montana isn’t alone. Washington State has moved gradually toward voting by mail; today, only one county, Pierce County, has traditional precincts. Colorado, another state that allows permanent absentees, permitted counties to hold their primaries this year exclusively by mail. Of Colorado’s 64 counties, 46 did, including most of the biggest ones. Places that choose voting-by-mail as their mechanism for voting early, it seems, are gradually hitting a critical mass.

Worries about fraud

That possibility has some people worried. Criticism of voting by mail comes from several different angles. Some skeptics point out that while voting fraud is exceptionally rare in the United States, it has happened most frequently through absentee ballots. Others worry that vote-by-mail will disenfranchise people who move frequently or lack fixed addresses — that’s why Native Americans in Montana are skeptical of the proposal. Still others worry about counting on the postal service — Charles Stewart, an MIT political scientist, points to research that mail ballots go uncounted more frequently than in-person ballots.

As a result, some states have pursued a different strategy. McCulloch found that Oregonians like voting by mail, but if she’d visited Georgia she’d have discovered that many voters there love to vote early in-person. Lynn Ledford, Gwinnett County’s elections director, notes that in 2008, early voting lines in her suburban Atlanta jurisdiction were as much as 8 to 10 hours long. Other Georgia counties experienced the same thing. Ledford told voters that they would have a much shorter wait on Election Day, but they didn’t care. “They were so excited that they had this option,” she says. “No one was angry. The Chinese restaurant next door said they had never sold so much rice and drinks.”

Those lines reflect the enthusiasm of the 2008 election, but they also reflect the priorities of Georgia’s policymakers, who have expressed concerns about voter fraud. “We frankly had hoped that we would get more people to vote in-person than through the mail to avoid some of the manipulation in the absentee voting process,” says state Senator Cecil Staton, who has sponsored many of the state’s election law changes recently. Since 2008, Georgia has required every county to let voters cast their ballots in-person starting 45 days before the election, without having to offer an excuse. Georgia offers no-excuse absentee voting too, but only 300,000 people mailed in ballots in 2008, compared to the nearly 1.8 million who voted early in-person. Overall, 53 percent of the state’s ballots were cast early.

More changes are likely to affect the process of early voting in Georgia. Ledford says she’d like to experiment with vote centers, so that voters can show up at any polling location to cast a ballot within a few weeks of election day. Staton thinks the 45-day window is too long, placing a burden on counties. But there are no signs of the enthusiasm for mail-voting that renders precincts obsolete. In Georgia, early voting is an alternative to Election Day, not a replacement. “About half the voters chose to vote early,” Matt Carrothers, a spokesman to Georgia’s secretary of state says of 2008, “but, if you want to look at it the other way, about half didn’t.”

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Josh Goodman

Josh Goodman helps lead research on fiscal management and place-based economic development programs as part of Pew’s state fiscal health project. Goodman has served as a primary author for Pew studies that examine how states should evaluate tax incentives and maintain budget discipline when implementing those incentives.