Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Reducing the Costs of Participation: Are States Getting a Return on Early Voting?

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Reducing the Costs of Participation: Are States Getting a Return on Early Voting?

Article excerpt

The authors address the puzzle of why governments have implemented methods of early voting when those methods appear not to have an effect on turnout. Using an aggregate analysis, the authors find that early voting seems to produce a short-lived increase in turnout that disappears by the second presidential election in which it is available. They also address whether the additional costs to government are worth the negligible increase in participation. They conclude that these reforms merely offer additional convenience for those already likely to vote.

Keywords: elections and voting behavior; public opinion and political participation; representation and electoral systems; state politics and policy

One of the most significant reforms to the American electoral system in the past thirty years has been the advent of several forms of convenience voting. From no-excuse absentee balloting to early voting and even all-mail elections, it has never been easier for a registered voter in the United States to participate in selecting government officials. In the 2004 U.S. presidential election, thirty states allowed some form of convenience voting (National Association of Secretaries of State n.d.).1 These forms of early voting have become quite popular. For example, in the 2002 general election, more than a quarter of California voters voted with no-excuse absentee ballots (Berinsky 2005), while more than a third of voters in Texas made use of in-person early voting (Stein, Leighley, and Owens 2004). Nationwide, more and more voters are taking advantage of these more convenient methods for casting a ballot. In the 1992 presidential election, 8.5 percent of voters used some form of early or absentee voting. That percentage increased to 11.3 percent in 1996, 16.4 percent in 2000, and 21.7 percent in 2004.2 Clearly, as voters see the opportunity for participating in a more convenient fashion, they are increasingly choosing to do so. As a result, it seems unlikely that these innovations will be scaled back (Rosenfield 1994).

The implications of these reforms are significant. For voters, the ability to cast a ballot early reduces the costs of participation, not only by making it more convenient to vote on one's own schedule but also by reducing the amount of information one must consider when deciding for whom to vote.3 For parties and candidates, early voting drastically changes the way they run campaigns. As Republican pollster Glen Bolger put it, "You need to divide the electorate into two groups. Run one campaign at early voters and another at Election Day voters," (quoted in Nordlinger 2003, 27). And for society, early voting presumably advances democratic government, not only by making voting easier and more convenient but also by bringing more potential voters to the polls, thus increasing legitimacy.

But in making voting easier and more convenient, society does not reduce the overall costs of participation in any given election. Rather, early voting merely transfers certain costs from the individual to society-in this case, the counties that conduct elections. This transfer of costs begs the question: is it worth the cost? For the proponents of early voting, the answer is certainly yes. These proponents suggest that by making participation easier and more convenient, turnout will increase (Pennsylvania Election Reform Task Force n.d.; Anonymous 2005; Kenny 2004). Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson suggests that by expanding the use of no-excuse absentee ballots, turnout will increase by giving people additional opportunities to vote and by reducing lines on Election Day (Crowley 2006). Following the implementation of early voting in Illinois, St. Clair County Clerk Bob Delaney said that "the hope is that it will increase voter turnout" (McDermott 2006, C2). And lawmakers in Maryland passed a law in 2005 that would allow for a week of early voting with the intention of increasing turnout in Maryland's elections (Mosk 2006). …

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