Should we rethink this whole early voting thing?
About 20,000 Allen County residents cast early ballots at four satellite voting sites in 2016, The News-Sentinel reported, but they won’t have that opportunity in next year’s election unless members of the Allen County Election Board can agree on the number and location of sites.
It has been difficult to find satellite locations that have sufficient parking and hours of operation while also making sure no quadrant of town is left out. And because the operation has a limited budget, adding just one more satellite would further reduce the days and hours of early voting. How can the election board possibly be fair to all voters?
And Democratic board member Tim Pape has thrown out another complication to consider. If increasing voter turnout has been the purpose of the experiment, it’s a bust. “We had 150,000 votes last November, and just 20,000 were from satellites,” Pape said. “About 152,400 votes were cast in the previous presidential election in 2008 when early satellite voting was not offered. We’re spending money but not getting more votes. My objective is not to do what’s popular.”
Our experience with early turnout is not unique. According to a much-cited study from the University of Wisconsin of the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, controlling for other factors that predict an individual’s probability of voting, early voting appears to “lower the likelihood of turnout by 3 to 4 percentage points” compared with the probability in states that do not allow early voting or had not implemented other voting reforms.
Other studies have shown similar results. A review last year by the Government Accountability Office, for example, found “most studies of early in-person voting reported no evidence of an effect on turnout or found decreases in turnout.”
Researchers say it’s because early voting robs Election Day of its stimulating effects, reducing social pressure to vote, and gives less reason for campaigns to motivate their supporters and get them to the polls.
There are ways to increase voter turnout, including same-day registration, which can add to election excitement, and voting by mail. If turnout is truly Allen County’s goal, perhaps the emphasis should shift from early voting to one of those methods.
Of course it is worth asking how important turnout really is, but perhaps that’s a question for another day.
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