I like to vote on election day. Here in rural Maine not only is there never a line, but local candidates are outside the polling center to shake hands and chat (but not campaign), and there is real community spirit.
Voting, after all, is not a rational act. Rational action means one calculates the expected utility (positive outcome) of a choice. In the case of voting the time lost, gas used, and effort undertaken is almost certain to be more than the very unlikely possibility that ones’ vote will determine the outcome of an election. In terms of pure rationality, you’re better off not voting.
Voting instead should be seen as a duty, a moral obligation to our democratic community. It is a collective good – it may not be in any one person’s rational self-interest to go vote, but it’s in our collective interest to have everyone vote. People who feel connected to a community are more likely to vote as they recognize it as a task we undertake in order to enjoy the benefits of democracy.
The problem is compounded in cities and urban areas where voter can stand in line for hours. Not only does this make voting seem completely irrational, but not everyone has hours to sacrifice – a single mom who works and then has to take care of small children may be unable to take the time, for example.
Thus the rise of early voting. States have always had absentee ballots for those who couldn’t vote on election day. That later evolved into “no excuse” absentee ballots and in person early voting. This has grown rapidly since the 2004 election. That year Ohio decided the election for President Bush, and the state was dogged by long voting lines which arguably dissuaded some people from voting.
The states in blue allow no-excuse early voting either by mail in or in person ballot. The purple states are in person only, while the green ones are mail in only. The grey states have no ‘no excuse’ early voting. Is this a good thing?
Here in Maine early voting may have determined an election in 2010. In a three way race for governor, early polls showed Democrat Libby Mitchell in a tough campaign against Paul LePage, a tea party Republican who narrowly won a plurality in a field of six Republican primary candidates. Independent Elliot Cutler was third when early voting started. Mitchell’s campaign plummeted after that and the result was: Le Page 218,065, Cutler 208,270 and Mitchell 109,387.
The Democrats had an extensive get out the vote effort and many are convinced that Mitchell had at least 10,000 ‘early votes’ that would have gone to Cutler if people had waited and seen Mitchell’s campaign collapse. Some vowed never to vote early again!
That is probably an exception, and may not even have determined the result. 10,000 is a lot of votes, about a quarter of the total early votes.
Some dislike early voting because they believe people should pay attention to the campaign and be willing to change their minds up until the end. That is idealistic, but most of the early voters are not going to change their mind. Indeed, probably over 90% of voters are still where they were in their preferences half a year ago. The Maine case noted above wasn’t so much a change in preference but of strategy – they wanted to stop Le Page.
Others note that early voting benefits the campaign with the best get out the vote effort. GOTV efforts used to focus on election day, now campaigns can cajole voters to fill out absentees or go in to vote early. This is especially important in swing states like Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Iowa, Nevada and Colorado. This year it appears Obama’s GOTV operation is stronger than Romney’s, but it’s hard to tell.
The fact is that this year about a third of voters are expected to vote early, and in states like Colorado and Nevada it can be well over half the voters. Republicans have tried to limit early voting out of a belief that it is more likely to increase the turn out of groups that traditionally don’t vote in high numbers like blacks, Latinos or the poor. Since these groups are also more likely to vote Democratic, they believe that early voting helps Democrats.
While I prefer to vote on election day, I support early voting. I support it because of the fact it just might bring out poor and minority voters who traditionally don’t vote.
Someone who votes is more likely to take responsibility and work to build a better community. If you care about an election, you may become more likely to care about your neighborhood. If you care about your community, you might be more likely to make extra efforts to improve your life situation, help your children achieve more, and move out of poverty.
Idealistic? Perhaps. But critics of social welfare programs argue that they create psychological dependency, whereby a chunk of those on welfare find it easier to feel like victims and just live off others. Not 47% by any means, but there are some. Still others may not be that far gone but yet feel alienated and powerless. These are curable conditions. They may result from poverty, but they also increase the likelihood poverty will become permanent.
There could be much more done to address this issue. Social welfare programs should be less the mailing out of checks and more in the realm of community action. Community organizers should be the key line of defense against poverty, not bureaucracies in Washington. Real reform could help make the safety net also a ladder out of poverty.
Voting can’t do all that, but perhaps it’s like a gateway drug, creating a connection between the individual and the community. That can be built upon. So if early voting brings out more voters, especially people who have felt alienated and outside the community, then it is a good thing.
Still, I’ll be at the community center on November 6th (not the 7th – thanks Sarah, for catching that!), enjoying the ritual of voting in person on election day!