By Rob Roper
Every day there is a new announcement from the Vermont Secretary of State’s office proudly proclaiming how many people have cast their ballots weeks before election day on Nov. 3. As I’m writing this opening paragraph that number is about 150,000. By the time I reach the end the number will likely be much higher. This is not a good thing. It’s certainly nothing to be proud of.
While we all want to see higher voter turnout in the end, masses of people voting weeks before election day creates and exacerbates a number of problems with our election process.
The obvious one is that someone who votes a month and a half before election day (Vermont allows for a ridiculous 45-day early voting period) is going to do so without all the information that will come out in a campaign. Participation is good, but fully informed participation is the goal. In this year’s Democratic primary, for example, someone I know was excited to vote for Pete Buttigieg, did so as early as he could, but a couple of weeks before the official election day the candidate decided to withdraw from the race. That was one little tid-bit that I know my friend regrets not waiting to learn. His vote was wasted.
Time to gather facts may not be as big an issue in presidential campaigns or top-ticket statewide races which begin many months out, but early voting is a tremendous disservice to the down ticket candidates running for offices like state representative and senator. Traditionally, most of the campaigns for these seats are just kicking off six weeks before election day. Most of the coverage of these races by local media doesn’t begin in earnest until the leaves start to change color. As such, it’s almost impossible for a voter to do their homework if they don’t wait until the end of the process to cast their ballot.
Which brings us to the less obvious problems caused by early voting.
It’s an incumbent protection scheme. Voters tend to vote for the candidates who have that coveted “name recognition,” a commodity incumbents generally come into the race with and challengers hope to acquire by the end. If they can lop six weeks of the campaign — or all of the campaign in the case of a six-week state representative race — incumbents better their odds that voters don’t have the time to get to know challengers. Early voting also makes races more expensive, which deters challengers from getting into races in the first place — another thing incumbents like.
Yes, early voting increases the need for money in politics, which is something we all say we want less of. It used to be that in Vermont we had local campaigns that began six weeks before election day and culminated in a 72-hour get-out-the-vote effort. You could run a Vermont House race for the price of a few dozen lawn signs, some flyers, a couple of ads in the local paper, and a sturdy pair of shoes. Now candidates have to start campaigning months before early voting begins, and then sustain 45 days (did I mention how utterly ridiculous this is?) of get-out-the-vote activity. To be successful, this involves multiple direct mail pieces (we all love those), six weeks of pestering phone calls (also fun), and cluttering social media with paid political messages. All of which costs a lot of money. It’s not uncommon now for a local statehouse race to exceed $20,000. This means, as noted before, fewer people can afford to run for office. That’s great for incumbents, great for well off donors looking to buy influence, but bad for a healthy democracy.
Early voting fosters endless politics. I so often hear people complaining about how campaigns seem to start earlier and earlier every cycle. They have — because we have expanded early voting. When voting begins 45 days (12% of a year! Ridiculous, right?) before the August primary, campaigning has to start a minimum of six to eight weeks before that. That’s six extra weeks of looking at law signs, enduring your neighbors’ incessant political commentary on Facebook, and awkward conversations at family gatherings. And then it starts all over again for another extra 12% of the year for the general election.
So, in conclusion, early voting leads to a less informed electorate, necessitates more money in politics, is a boon to telemarketers, direct mail companies, and social media advertisers, reduces accountability by protecting incumbents, and draws out interminably the period in which politicians permeate every facet of our existence. But, hey, it’s just so convenient, isn’t it.
Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He lives in Stowe.