“Election Day” is an obsolete concept

Us political observers haven’t taken sufficient notice of the fact that early voting is making the idea of “Election Day” ever more irrelevant. And that’s a good thing.

Well, except when a politician flip-flops on a key issue late in the game.

Vermont hasn’t gone as far as some jurisdictions in abandoning the calendrical imperative as a limit to voting rights. Oregon’s elections are entirely conducted by mail, with each registered voter automatically receiving a ballot. We don’t do that, but at least we make ballots freely available either by mail or in person at your town clerk’s office for more than a month before election day.

Although the service is underpublicized (Jim Condos doesn’t have an advertising budget), more and more Vermonters are taking advantage. According to VTDigger, roughly 17 percent of ballots for the “August 9” primary will be returned in person or by mail before the polls open.

This is inconvenient for pollsters and pundits and for politicians crafting last-minute strategery, but it’s a very good thing if it enables more people to vote.

It clearly does, and it should be encouraged and expanded. (Especially given Vermont’s continued use of farmer’s hours for voting. Really, it’s very difficult for a lot of people to get to the polls between 7 am and 7 pm.)

Indeed, we should stop thinking in terms of “Election Day” and fully embrace the more inclusive notion of “Election Weeks” or something similar. We should be fully cognizant of the fact that votes are being cast for a month or more, and politicians should be charged with maintaining consistency when possible during Election Weeks*. Every piece of Election Weeks reporting should include a reminder that Votes Are Being Cast Now.

*There are exceptions, obviously. Current events can lead to reconsideration of a position. That wasn’t true in Matt Dunne’s case; he’d been campaigning for well over a year, and renewables siting has been a fronty-burner issue throughout that time. There’s no excuse for his sudden reversal on the issue. 

This would, among other things, greatly reduce the opportunity for pre-election dirty tricks or October Surprises, whose impact depends on a lack of time for adequate response.

But the biggest benefit, by far, is making it easier for people to vote. This is the most effective way to expand the franchise which, I’m given to understand, is generally considered to be a good thing.

The other great benefit is eliminating concern about the timing of Election Day. There’s been a great deal of hand-wringing about our state primary coming at the height of summer, when people are vacationing or going to the beach or getting the kid to soccer camp or whatever. But if you think in terms of Election Weeks, then what does it matter if the primary is in August or September or June or March?

Indeed, actual real-life statistics show that the worries about an August primary are vastly overblown. When Vermont had mid-September primaries, turnout depended almost entirely on the quality of competition. In 2000, when there was a red-hot Republican primary and conservative voters were in a froth over civil unions, primary turnout was a robust 30 percent. But in the ensuing years, turnout fell into the single digits in spite of a mid-September election day.

In 2010, we shifted to a late-August primary, but there was a sharply contested Democratic primary — and expanded availability of absentee ballots. Turnout was a relatively healthy 23 percent, and nearly one-quarter of all votes were cast early.

Then, a lack of competitive races caused a falloff in 2012 and 2014. Early voting helped buoy turnout, which was consistent with the non-competitive September primaries of the Aughts. This year, with competitive races for governor in both parties, projected turnout is roughly 30 percent.

In short, there’s no evidence that a September date encouraged participation, or that an August date kept people away from the polls. If there is an effect, it’s been largely nullified by the availability of early voting. In any event, people have no excuse. They’ve been able to procure and cast a ballot since late June.

The date of the primary is becoming irrelevant, and I, for one, wholeheartedly welcome the development. Us folks in the news and commentary business need to shift our thinking and reporting.

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3 thoughts on ““Election Day” is an obsolete concept

  1. Brooke Paige

    Heck, Why have a definitive end date ? We could have the votes come in and open then up and see where the candidates are at that point. With more time on the clock, others who preciously couldn’t be bothered to get to the polls or mail their ballot in might be motivated by what they viewed as an unsatisfactory result. At some point, the election results would begin to become evident and the holdouts might decide to get involved. At some point the election would have to end and that finish line could be predetermined as when 80% or 90% of the electorate had participated. Talk about turnout, imagine a 90% turnout with 50% or more only marginally informed as to the positions and policies of the contestants – Now is that what Democracy is all about ?

    Reply
    1. John S. Walters Post author

      Oh, heck, you know as well as I do that the vast majority of voters don’t feel the need to inform themselves. They vote for the party over the person. (Just look at all the Republicans lining up behind the awful Trump.) Even in primaries, most voters make their decisions based on impressions or snap judgments, not by poring over Voter Guides.

      So what’s the fix? Do we give a vote more weight if the voter can show they diligently studied the candidates? No, we let the people vote regardless of how seriously they take the project.

      Reply
  2. 802matthew

    Funny, I was thinking that I’ve voted early so many times that I’ve started thinking of voting day more as a deadline. Rather than “early voting” and “voting day,” I like the shift to framing it as a “voting period” and “voting deadline.”

    Reply

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