PERRY/Voting early ignores debates
Wednesday, October 3, 2012 1:00 AM
The election for President of the United States is a month away. The campaigns will spend hundreds of millions of dollars in these last three weeks to make their closing arguments to the American people. President Barack Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney square off in three debates, plus a fourth debate between their running mates: Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan.
The money spent before November 6 and the debates mean nothing. They're worthless - at least to some people.
Like jurors who decide the guilt or innocence of a defendant before the trial has completed, these voters need to hear no more arguments; they've decided and locked in the verdict. That's because a number of states, including swing states like Iowa and Ohio, have already started "early voting" - a development which for some renders presidential debates an entertainment sideshow on par with national conventions.
In 2008, 33 percent or 131 million voters cast their ballots before Election Day. Analysts expect the number and percentage to increase this year. In 2004, President George W. Bush took the advantage among early votes; in 2008, Obama lead early votes over Senator John McCain. More than half of all voters in Florida and North Carolina used early voting in 2008; two-thirds of voters in Colorado and Nevada voted before Election Day that same year.
Don't get me wrong. I've decided who I'm voting for and I doubt anything will change my mind. That is the case for many Americans. But swing and independent voters who vote early lose the opportunity to consider all the facts and developments prior to the election.
In Mississippi - if you meet certain criteria like 65 or older, out of town on Election Day, working during polling hours, on deployment and others - we can vote "early" by absentee ballot. However, if you change your mind, you can show up at the polling place and cast a vote in person and have your absentee ballot tossed. With early voting, you can't uncast your ballot; you can't change your mind.
But early voting encourages participation and increases turn out, right? Not exactly. A new report from the University of Wisconsin studying voter turnout in the 2008 elections determined early voting areas saw a three percentage point lower turnout than non-early voting areas. The researchers speculate the cause is a less intense get-out-the-vote effort and diminished campaigning as candidates spread their efforts over a longer period of time to impact early voting, or concentrate their final efforts elsewhere because early voting has decreased the electoral targets in an area.
Early voting obviously impacts a statewide, down ticket race in Mississippi that might raise half-a-million dollars allowing paid advertising for only a couple of weeks. As a result, many voters could cast their ballots before some candidates ever make their case. But the Wisconsin study suggests even national campaigns spending a hundred-million-dollars a month adjust their efforts as well. In some states, early voting turns an effective 72-hour get-out-the-vote program into a ineffective 45-day get-out-the-vote program.
Early voting raises other challenges. In Mississippi, candidates and political parties may authorize a poll watcher in a precinct during the election to observe or challenge the conduct of the process. Even if early voting machines were only one per county, few statewide campaigns could manage 82 observers each day for 7-14 days before the election - just one work week would require 3,280 man hours to observe early polls statewide.
Compressing an election into one day makes fraud more difficult. Time constrains the efforts of those illegally impacting an election. It is no surprise we face challenges with illegal absentee ballots: there are unmonitored weeks to manipulate the vote instead of one day under watch.
For the first sixty years of our country, early voting was a necessity due to slow travel from the frontiers. In 1845, Congress established Tuesday after the first Monday in November as the day to cast ballots - long before automobiles made getting to the polls easier. Since then, Election Day has become a symbol and ritual of our democracy.
Following a robust public debate on issues; after sorting through platforms and attacks; after weighing individuals who put themselves up for public service, we come together on one day and vote and make our voices heard. We leave our computers and couches and venture to the community location designated for voting - a school, a church, a fire station - and we see our neighbors: rich or poor, educated or ignorant, powerful or power less - in the great egalitarian experiment where all our votes are equal. We see it. We feel it. We participate.
Early voting changes Election Day from a celebration of democracy to just the final deadline of a process. It eliminates the need of antiquated events like debates.
Brian Perry is a partner with Capstone Public Affairs, LLC and a columnist for the Madison County Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @CapstonePerry on Twitter.