Early Voting Reforms and American Elections

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

The United States is in the midst of a reform era. After the controversy surrounding the 2000 election results, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002. x As a result of HAVA, every state in the nation was required to establish a statewide voter registration system by 2006.2 Disabled citizens are guaranteed access to the polls.3 America's men and women in the armed forces have their ballots counted in a timely fashion.4 And Native Americans, Latinos, and other disadvantaged groups that have traditionally faced barriers to participation have had these barriers reduced or eliminated altogether.5 Since 2000, non-partisan groups, political parties, and candidate organizations have paid far closer attention to the mechanics of ballot counting.6 Legal challenges have forced some states to abandon mechanical vote-counting systems in favor of presumably more reliable technologies, such as optical character scanning and touchscreen.7

These are the reforms that were mandated by Congress, endorsed by the President, and are being implemented nationwide. There is, however, a quieter set of reforms that have been advancing across the nation for more than a decade, a set of reforms that have a far greater potential to change the way that elections are being conducted, not only in the United States but worldwide. Some states and localities have been systematically relaxing the requirements for absentee balloting;8 others provide for a period of in-person early voting in which citizens can cast their ballots as early as a month before election day;9 and finally, the State of Oregon mandated 100% voting by mail since 1998.10

For an increasing number of Americans, then, "election day" is a historical relic. Instead, ballots are cast at the individual's convenience, up to three weeks before the scheduled date of the election.11 Why has this change taken place? What consequences might this change have for the behavior of candidates, non-partisan political groups, and the voters themselves? Does early voting augur well for the quality of democratic decision making in the United States?

This Article looks at these important political questions. In the first section, I describe the advancement of early voting systems, a process that started slowly in the 1980s but has accelerated rapidly in the past few years, followed by a review of the scholarly literature on the subject. Next, I propose a research agenda for scholars and policy reformers who are interested in early voting. I argue that, for campaigners, early voting alters their strategic calculus. It increases the uncertainty about turnout and as a result increases campaign costs. For voters, early voting provides an opportunity to express their preferences quickly and conveniently, but we are likely to observe this behavior only among the most well-informed and politically aware. Much less clear is how early voting impacts less well-informed voters. Finally, I provide a first set of insights to this research agenda, using a unique set of data on individual level ballot returns from the State of Oregon. The empirical results show that early voters, as expected, are those citizens who are more partisan, who live in areas with longer commute times, and have higher than average incomes and education levels. I close by suggesting avenues for future research, focusing particularly on how the rules of the game, the state of the campaign, and the makeup of the electorate interact in complex and sometimes unpredictable ways, thus making it difficult to predict the impact of early voting reforms on elections and electoral outcomes.

I. WHAT IS EARLY VOTING?

For the purposes of this Article, early voting is a blanket term used to describe any system where voters can cast their ballots before the official election day. This covers a bewildering array of different electoral systems in the United States and, increasingly, abroad. I primarily use the term to mean in-person early voting, noexcuse absentee balloting, and vote-by-mail (see Table 1 for a summary). …