In Early Voting Trend, Democracy Is the Biggest Loser

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, October 26, 2008

M illions of Americans in more than 30 states have already voted, and you haven't. In those states, some people vote by mail, some at special early voting centers and some at their regular polling place, but they all have an opportunity not available to residents of Virginia, Maryland and the District.

Is that fair? What if last month's economic collapse had happened, say, this week, and one group of Americans picked a president pre-crash while the rest of us made our choices under sharply different circumstances?

Maryland residents will vote next week not only on slot machines but also on early voting -- a constitutional change that would allow anyone to cast a ballot in the two weeks leading up to Election Day.

Proponents of the change, including Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and Maryland Democratic leaders, say it's a way to make voting more convenient, ideally boosting turnout.

There's not much organized opposition to the proposal.

There should be.

Sadly, the debate in Maryland has become partisan. Democrats see an advantage in setting up early voting centers in densely populated areas where they might gain from making voting easier. Republicans cry foul and warn that early voting increases the risk of fraud.

Which is really hogwash. If the security of the voting technology is at issue, then that's a risk that occurs whenever and wherever people vote.

But there's a much more important reason why early voting is a giant step backward: Voting is a proud expression of who we are and of our belief in our system and our future. It is an individual act but a communal experience. It is a statement we make about ourselves, to ourselves, but also to each other. It is how we say, "I am part of something larger, and my voice matters, and so does yours." When we chip away at that communal experience, we diminish democracy.

"Voting alone could be worse than bowling alone," says Dennis Thompson, a political philosopher at Harvard University, referring to Robert Putnam's book arguing that as Americans have withdrawn from community and civic activities, our sense of trust and political engagement has declined. Early voting, Thompson says, "divides people, and in elections, we're all supposed to be equal. The meaning of an election is that all of us come together to make decisions based on our common experience." Take away the chance to vote together and you take away some of that meaning.

Early voting -- which unlike absentee voting requires no stated excuse -- has picked up steam across the country because we live in a society that craves convenience. Now that technology allows voting to be cut loose from the tradition of going to a single place at a single time, that seems like progress.

"It's a quiet form of election reform, and it's generally been uncontroversial," says Paul Gronke, a political scientist at Reed College in Oregon who directs the Early Voting Information Center. Gronke likes how early voting makes it easier for more people to vote, and he offers evidence that early voting is every bit as secure as Election Day balloting. But he also notes that the expansion of time to vote has had little impact on turnout.

Early voting does raise serious fairness issues. In Contra Costa County, Calif., this spring, John Edwards won 80 percent of his votes in the Democratic primary from early birds, whereas Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama won only 40 percent of their votes from that group. The difference: By the time the real Election Day rolled around, Edwards had withdrawn from the race.

"Early voting is a strongly biased opportunity," Thompson argues. "Some people have more information than others." In local and state races, voters might not hear much about candidates until the final week. That's when less well-funded candidates might make their big push, and it's when newspapers and other media produce voter guides.

More disturbing, early voters tend to be "older, better educated and more cognitively engaged in the campaign and in politics," Gronke says.

"Early voting encourages a campaign strategy that divides the electorate and conceives of early voters as a different group," Thompson says. Last week, Obama spent a big chunk of time in Florida just as early voting began there.

The Obama phenomenon has made many Democrats fans of early voting; many of those queuing up to cast early ballots have been young people and blacks, both groups with traditionally low turnout. But Thompson warns that Obama's ability to inspire the disaffected is unusual. Most studies of early voting show that those who come out early tend to be more affluent and disproportionately Republican.

Either way, early voting shouldn't be a partisan issue. The real debate should be about whether convenience is more important than the unique power of Election Day to pull us out of our atomized lives and put us in one room with our neighbors so that we see, if only briefly, just what we are voting about.

It's actually good for voting to be a little inconvenient: It slows us down a bit, creates possibilities for human contact and reminds us that voting is a duty, a responsibility.

In 1990, I covered the first free vote held in East Germany after more than half a century of Nazi and Communist rule. Seeing people weep with joy as they received their first ballot taught me a lesson. "What an exceptionally good feeling," said a church deacon, Alexander Sonnenberg, after he voted. "This was the first chance I ever had to take a bit of responsibility for the development of democracy."

We are a determined people who have made sure that no one prevents us from casting our votes in open, free elections. It would be a shame to diminish our own freedom.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company