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Early Voting: Democracy Loses

Millions of Americans in more than 30 states have already voted, and you haven't. In those states, some people vote by mail, some at special early voting centers and some at their regular polling place, but they all have an opportunity not available to residents of Virginia, Maryland and the District.

Is that fair? What if last month's economic collapse had happened, say, this week, and one group of Americans picked a president pre-crash while the rest of us made our choices under sharply different circumstances?

Maryland residents will vote next week not only on slot machines but also on early voting -- a constitutional change that would allow anyone to cast a ballot in the two weeks leading up to Election Day.

Proponents of the change, including Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and Maryland Democratic leaders, say it's a way to make voting more convenient, ideally boosting turnout.

There's not much organized opposition to the proposal.

There should be.

Sadly, the debate in Maryland has become partisan. Democrats see an advantage in setting up early voting centers in densely populated areas where they might gain from making voting easier. Republicans cry foul and warn that early voting increases the risk of fraud.

Which is really hogwash. If the security of the voting technology is at issue, then that's a risk that occurs whenever and wherever people vote.

But there's a much more important reason why early voting is a giant step backward: Voting is a proud expression of who we are and of our belief in our system and our future. It is an individual act but a communal experience. It is a statement we make about ourselves, to ourselves, but also to each other. It is how we say, "I am part of something larger, and my voice matters, and so does yours." When we chip away at that communal experience, we diminish democracy.

"Voting alone could be worse than bowling alone," says Dennis Thompson, a political philosopher at Harvard University, referring to Robert Putnam's book arguing that as Americans have withdrawn from community and civic activities, our sense of trust and political engagement has declined. Early voting, Thompson says, "divides people, and in elections, we're all supposed to be equal. The meaning of an election is that all of us come together to make decisions based on our common experience." Take away the chance to vote together and you take away some of that meaning.

Early voting -- which unlike absentee voting requires no stated excuse -- has picked up steam across the country because we live in a society that craves convenience. Now that technology allows voting to be cut loose from the tradition of going to a single place at a single time, that seems like progress.

"It's a quiet form of election reform, and it's generally been uncontroversial," says Paul Gronke, a political scientist at Reed College in Oregon who directs the Early Voting Information Center. Gronke likes how early voting makes it easier for more people to vote, and he offers evidence that early voting is every bit as secure as Election Day balloting. But he also notes that the expansion of time to vote has had little impact on turnout.

Early voting does raise serious fairness issues. In Contra Costa County, Calif., this spring, John Edwards won 80 percent of his votes in the Democratic primary from early birds, whereas Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama won only 40 percent of their votes from that group. The difference: By the time the real Election Day rolled around, Edwards had withdrawn from the race.

"Early voting is a strongly biased opportunity," Thompson argues. "Some people have more information than others." In local and state races, voters might not hear much about candidates until the final week. That's when less well-funded candidates might make their big push, and it's when newspapers and other media produce voter guides.

More disturbing, early voters tend to be "older, better educated and more cognitively engaged in the campaign and in politics," Gronke says.

"Early voting encourages a campaign strategy that divides the electorate and conceives of early voters as a different group," Thompson says. Last week, Obama spent a big chunk of time in Florida just as early voting began there.

The Obama phenomenon has made many Democrats fans of early voting; many of those queuing up to cast early ballots have been young people and blacks, both groups with traditionally low turnout. But Thompson warns that Obama's ability to inspire the disaffected is unusual. Most studies of early voting show that those who come out early tend to be more affluent and disproportionately Republican.

Either way, early voting shouldn't be a partisan issue. The real debate should be about whether convenience is more important than the unique power of Election Day to pull us out of our atomized lives and put us in one room with our neighbors so that we see, if only briefly, just what we are voting about.

It's actually good for voting to be a little inconvenient: It slows us down a bit, creates possibilities for human contact and reminds us that voting is a duty, a responsibility.

In 1990, I covered the first free vote held in East Germany after more than half a century of Nazi and Communist rule. Seeing people weep with joy as they received their first ballot taught me a lesson. "What an exceptionally good feeling," said a church deacon, Alexander Sonnenberg, after he voted. "This was the first chance I ever had to take a bit of responsibility for the development of democracy."

We are a determined people who have made sure that no one prevents us from casting our votes in open, free elections. It would be a shame to diminish our own freedom.

By Marc Fisher |  October 26, 2008; 9:50 AM ET
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how many of the same people are registered to vote in maryland, virginia and the district...
how many are registered to vote in florida and new york or jersey and new york?
when will we find these criminals and punish them...

Posted by: DwightHCollins | October 26, 2008 11:03 AM

Let me understand this, because a few states aren't doing early voting, all the others that do should be forced to stop it?

It appears Obama is winning large in the early voting, how much does that have to do with your desire to stop early voting?

This is really a judgment of undesired results, followed by backfilling "reasons" to support the judgment. Critical thinking works the other way around.

Posted by: barfolomew | October 26, 2008 11:21 AM

Although you say that early voting is not permitted in Virginia, the reality is that, at least in Arlington, anyone can vote early in person until Nov. 1 on an absentee basis. You can qualify as an absentee for a litany of reasons, including a reasonable belief that you will leave Arlington for some portion of election day and may not make it back to the polls. You do not need to specify why you may be out of Arlington, and if your job is in a jurisdiction other than Arlington (D.C., Fairfax, Falls Church, etc.) you are presumptively entitled to vote absentee. I think other local jurisdictions in Virginia may have similar rules, but don't know. Details on the rules in Arlington are here:

All that said, I fundamentally disagree with your premise, Mr. Fisher. The objective in an election should be to get every person's viewpoint counted. We shouldn't need to be mulling our choices in an election until the last possible week. As you yourself say, those who are better educated and more engaged in the political process tend to make up their minds early, and thus vote early. Distilled down, what you are advocating is systemic fence sitting and compelled indecision until the last possible moment, with the added bonus of necessarily ensuring that some number of people who would have cast their votes early will not do so on election day due to unexpected developments that keep them from the polls. In the interest of "full information," you are simply favoring disenfranchisement for those who may be kept from the polls on election day by circumstance, or for those whom the idea of standing in long lines is not appealing for whatever medical reasons. Any prospect of keeping even a single vote from being cast, in my view, is never a good idea, regardless of who the candidates are.

Finally, with respect to your notion that voting early is "voting alone," the lines at the early voting poll in Arlington have been running so long that people have been turning away. I hardly see how a system that encourages that many people to cast their votes early, for whatever reason, can be a bad thing.

Posted by: wahoo2x | October 26, 2008 11:57 AM

Democrats for John McCain and Sarah Palin in 2008

Posted by: hclark1 | October 26, 2008 12:08 PM

Anyone who thinks voting should be "a little inconvenient" has never been asked to stand in a 4 hour line to cast a ballot (which was the wait in my Ohio precinct in 2004).

You also obviously haven't faced difficulty at the polls based on a registration or ID error on election day. If you had, you'd know that by then it's too late to fix it. If you're extremely lucky your provisional ballot might get counted, but odds are pretty bad. People who vote early have time to correct mistakes before they can be disenfranchised by them.

It's not just Obama that's inspiring early voting turnout in unexpected places. It's a communal experience to be systematically discouraged from civic participation - like 4 hour lines. But yeah, I'm sure we'd all feel much more neighborly if we were equally unable to participate as long as we all did it on the same day.

Posted by: jadedlee | October 26, 2008 12:34 PM

Early voting is a way to get the maximum number of people to participate.

With all the problems with electronic ballots (votes being changed from Democrat to Repubican in numerous instances in WV); disenfranchisement; breakdown of machines or not enough machines; long lines which means someone has to decide to extend voting hours, etc.

I can’t believe the outcries now about early voting. Could it be because this is something that is pushed by Democrats?

Posted by: rlj1 | October 26, 2008 12:51 PM

If the states, like FL, are already having lines that wait for 3-5 hours in areas then the system has some revamping to do before you criticize the early voting issue.

If the turnout is as strong as projected what other solution would you suggest?

Yes, Nov. 4th is the date and yes, something could arise in the last week to make a difference, but also yes is that most people have made up their minds.

Therefore, unless you can conclude it a day off of work for everyone, holiday, to vote and have enough polls and polling people available or another system, this is the only choice now.

Posted by: jrubin1 | October 26, 2008 12:55 PM

Mark, in theory I agree with your sentiment about the shared experience, but in real life it's best to have early voting, even though I'm perfectly willing to wait myself.

Why? Because with early voting, there's a safety valve that prevents trolling lawyers from putting the kibosh on the whole process with a series of nitpicking challenges, made purely for the purpose of vote suppression. We all know who's behind this, and we all know why they're doing this---to suppress the Democratic totals.

If all voting is restricted to election day, then this sort of sabotage has a much better chance of working than if it happens a few weeks in advance, when there's still time to react.

If governments made it a point of PROACTIVELY issuing photographic voter ID cards to everyone, and made sure that there were enough poll workers to handle any number of voters on election day, then maybe I could see one day only. But as long as this isn't the case, all that you're effectively doing is giving the Republicans one more weapon of vote suppression. I know that this isn't your intention, but realistically, you have to realize that this would be an almost certain consequence of one day only voting.

Posted by: andym108 | October 26, 2008 1:11 PM

the story reads, "Millions of Americans in more than 30 states have already voted, and you haven't. In those states, some people vote by mail, some at special early voting centers and some at their regular polling place, but they all have an opportunity not available to residents of Virginia, Maryland and the District.

Is that fair? What if last month's economic collapse had happened, say, this week, and one group of Americans picked a president pre-crash while the rest of us made our choices under sharply different circumstances?


what sharply different circumstances are you referring to?


could one of those sharply different circumstances be voting under a BARAGE OF NEGATIVE SMEAR ADS BY A 727 CAMPAIGN SUCH AS THE SWIFT BOATERS WHO ATTACKED KERRY IN 2004????

could one of those sharply different circumstances be voting under a shroud of FRIGHT INDUCED BY MENTIONING THE WORDS "9/11", "TERRORIST", "BIN LADEN" in every other word, or maybe even having a GUEST CAMEO APPEARANCE by bin laden himself on star search which is filmed on some "dude ranch" in crawford texas???

yea.. there are a lot of sharply different circumstances that could play a factor if someone votes early.

so i say, vote early.

Posted by: FozzieBear | October 26, 2008 2:52 PM

You are evoking a Norman Rockwell fantasy of Election Day in which people stroll in, wait patiently for a little while, cast their vote, and head out in a relaxed way to start their day, mildly inconvenienced but uplifted by their shared civic duty.

In reality, as other comments have noted, the "price" of Election Day as it now exists is very high for those who are physically poorly suited to long waits or who don't have the job or family flexibility to fit in an unpredictable but multihour break in their day. Those who can't "pay" that price would lose their vote without early voting.

To my ear, your arguments in favor of killing early voting sound a lot like the old arguments for the poll tax. The long lines, like the poll tax, look "fair" and like an equal imposition on all voters. But they really skew toward including some groups and excluding others.

Since we are not willing to hugely ramp up investment in more locations, machines, and staff to make Election Day work smoothly and efficiently without early voting, I consider early voting is a terrific way to empower all voters to manage their own time and make their voices heard. No to poll taxes, yes to early voting. Someone who's worked for a year volunteering for one candidate or the other does not need that last week or two of "information" to make up their mind. Let's get their vote counted and get them out of the Election Day lines.

Posted by: fairfaxvoter | October 26, 2008 3:15 PM

Marc states that "It's actually good for voting to be a little inconvenient: It slows us down a bit, creates possibilities for human contact and reminds us that voting is a duty, a responsibility." I wholeheartedly disagree. There is a large group of people who cannot afford to take the unpaid time off of work to go vote, particularly in DC traffic (when it takes an hour or two to get home and vote.)

Marc, if you had the choice between losing your job because you were late to work, and waiting in a 2 hour voting line, which would you pick?

Also - with regards to fraud. Does it not give you MORE time to resolve any eligibility questions if the votes are spread out over, say, two weeks? Is airport security more efficient 20 flights leave at the same time, and everyone shows up at the last minute? If every column is turned in 90 seconds before deadline, are more errors caught by the editors? This also reduces the chance of police and poll workers working against the voters, as the stories out of Florida in 2000 intimated. One story that sticks out in my mind was police in rural areas setting up roadblocks to "check identification" near predominantly black polling places. I doubt even the most crooked sheriff could do that for 2 weeks running.

Lastly, Marc uses the example that voters in the CA primary were cheated when they voted early for John Edwards. First - no one is forcing anyone to vote early, just giving them the option. The vast majority of the early voters on both sides in this contest (and many others) have made up their mind, regardless of what events may take place in the next two weeks.

Marc - we still love ya, but you are way, way, way off on this one.

Posted by: vtavgjoe | October 26, 2008 3:22 PM



I'm john mccain, and i approve
this message.


Posted by: FozzieBear | October 26, 2008 3:24 PM

Mr. Fisher - While I see your argument that voting should be a communal experience, the fact of the matter is that voting in far too many places around this country on Election Day is much more problematic and inconvenient than it should be. Citizens should not have to spend 3+ hours standing in line waiting to vote. There should not be the many voting machine breakdowns or lack-of emergency ballots in as many polling places as there are. Although I live in MD, I am in Florida this week and I watched a story on the news here this morning that early polling places in Palm Beach County are already recording multiple-hour waits for early voting now. Imagine if all of the people around the country who are early voting now were forced to vote on Election Day. It would not only be a nightmare, many of them likely would not wait so long in line and would ultimately not cast a vote. Many people have hourly-wage jobs and cannot afford to miss so much work time to exercise their constitutional right to vote. The bottom line should be that ALL citizens have the opportunity to vote, regardless of whether the vote casting takes place on Election Day or before. Given that the United States likes to consider herself a beacon of Democracy, I am embarrassed at all of the problems that seem to happen each and every Election Day (primaries included). In the 21st Century, we should have already perfected an almost-flawless process for citizens to exercise this most basic right. In my estimation, early voting allows democracy to win.

Posted by: JLF03 | October 26, 2008 3:55 PM

Marc, in the sam spirit you should also ban early traveling on holidays. Surely the shared experience of everyone being on the roads the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is more important than any efficiency gained by spreading the rush over several days.

Posted by: washpost4 | October 26, 2008 6:06 PM

Hmm...well I don't vote on the basis of the condition of my pocketbook and retirement funds. I vote based on moral benchmarks. Those do not change and are often revealed early on.

When I vote, I've made up my mind, regardless of what news comes down the track. This is because I've made my decision based on priorities set in wisdom and not knee-jerk reactionism. So, assuming most Americans do likewise (and I'm actually NOT assuming this, but I'll keep my opinion of the average American to myself here), early voting shouldn't be a problem.

In the end, does it matter??? The electoral college and the Supreme Court elect whomever they want regardless of the popular vote results!!

Posted by: CyanSquirrel | October 27, 2008 3:39 PM

Marc, Have you ever worked the polls? I have. I've handed out sample ballots and literature from 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. (that's not a typo), and, on other elections, been a poll worker from 5:00 a.m. to whenver we got the votes counted, reported, etc. Know what? It's ususally the same folks voting time after time. If I could increase voter turn-out by easy early voting, lollipops, or exotic dancers of both sexes, I would. It's the voting that counts. Yeah, for some it's a comuunal activity, but many others see it as their duty, and they just do it. They don't expect anything out of it other than the sense of accomplishment that comes when one has done his/her duty.

Posted by: IrishRose | October 27, 2008 3:58 PM

I voted early because I'm spending Election Day on the road, working in a neighboring state to fight Republican efforts at voter suppression and disenfranchisement. I can't think of a better way to spend the day than protecting my fellow citizens' rights to vote. If early voting makes that possible, then it's an unqualified good.

Posted by: simpleton1 | October 27, 2008 4:26 PM

Perhaps if EVERYONE had time off (or the day off) on Election Day, then everyone voting on the same day might work.

Me, I'm just happy to increase participation....

Posted by: BobT13 | October 27, 2008 5:59 PM

Marc, do you also think that primary voting is unfair?

Posted by: PSolus | October 27, 2008 6:09 PM

I'd accept your premise, Marc, if the US followed the rest of the world's democracies and had the polls open, say, from Friday through Sunday or Saturday through Monday to give everyone a chance to vote. Many of the reports of hours-long waits at the polls in 2004 came from -- guess what -- precincts in poor neighborhoods, where people are less likely to be forgiven if they're late for work because of their voting experience.

Posted by: Elkay1 | October 28, 2008 1:58 PM

I could not agree with Marc Fisher more here. Democracy is about candidates having a certain amount of days to make their case, and everyone voting under the same economic and political conditions, and knowing the same things about the candidate.

The problem of not having time to vote is one that can easily be addressed. Voting should be changed to Saturday, and then, for the relatively small amount of people that have to work on Saturday, the law should guarantee sufficient time off from work on election day in order to vote.

Absentee voting should only take place with a very good reason, and it should only be a small portion of the electorate, in order to preserve democracy as best as possible.

In sum, end this disturbing trend toward early voting.

Posted by: AnonymousBE | October 29, 2008 10:47 AM

Wow, Marc - out of the first 21 comments posted about eliminating early voting, 20 of those disagreed with you.

I think it would be nice to have you revisit this with a response to these comments. There were a lot of good reasons listed on behalf of early voting.

Looks like you struck out with this one.

Posted by: Anna_from_Annandale | October 29, 2008 2:35 PM

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