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Lost in the arguing: Early voting options are expanding

American states’ rapid accommodations for 2020 voters in the pandemic vastly accelerated their long trend toward more mail-in and in-person early voting options.

The voter-friendly adjustments reinforce citizens’ voting franchise by making it easier for millions of citizens to vote.

But expanded early voting options also give voters ample time to peruse the candidates and measures on their ballots, and that adds quality and credibility to our elections.

In Wisconsin, where the pandemic sparked a groundswell of mail-in and early voting, for example, “voters were looking for options” to election day at the polls, said Eileen Newcomer, voter education manager for the Wisconsin League of Women Voters.

“We’ve heard from people that (early voting) did give them time to do research, and they felt they were able to be more-informed voters,” she told me.

More time during which one can choose to vote also means one can better plan time to research the choices.

For me, that benefit became clear in April when I could vote for six weeks ahead of Virginia’s June Democratic primary. My ballot included an array of five gubernatorial and six lieutenant governor candidates plus party runoffs for state attorney general and even my own Virginia House delegate’s position.

Fortunately, the 2020 Virginia Legislature ensured voters lots of time to prepare, passing a no-excuses-needed right to absentee ballots up to 45 days before an election, and we can now request ballots for a year’s elections ahead of time.

The abundance of readily accessible information online and in mailings makes preparation easy, despite the internet’s torrent of disinformation. Nearly all declared candidates down through town councils and county commissions have campaign websites, and a quick online search delivers news, political party, business and other sources about candidates and ballot measures.

So, I checked out this primary’s cadre of candidates at my convenience and watched a televised debate between governor candidates — and voted.

At Common Cause, Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections, recites a litany of blessings from early voting. “It gives voters the opportunity to sit down and really research the candidates,” she told me, and “an informed voter is wonderful. Everything we can do to inform the electorate is good.”

On the other hand, she quickly insists citizens’ right to vote should in no way be conditioned on their knowledge, as it was by the poll tests and poll taxes outlawed over a half century ago. “I don’t want to play into any elitist … undemocratic theories,” she cautions and declares: “Everybody gets … a vote whether or not (someone else) thinks they deserve it.”

Albert notes how voters so often pick their own sources of information or disinformation on political matters. Thus, she says putting too much faith in an informed electorate “sort of overlooks the fact that political parties don’t agree on what truth is at this point, what the facts are.”

Thus, a big slogan on the website for the Brennan Center for Justice, a leading voting rights advocate, declares: “Informed citizens are our democracy’s best defense.” Albert cautions: “more information does not lead to a more uniform outcome” much of the time.

Gaining an extended time during which one can vote has come along as a subset of American’s right to vote itself, which has been a long and often troubled path. With many U.S. Constitutional amendments and legislative acts, the nation has gradually made the vote more available to citizens since the 15th Amendment, which gave males of all races the right to vote 152 years ago. The Constitutional changes alone since then: women’s suffrage, prohibiting poll taxes, and opening the vote to 18-year-olds.

In a progress report before last fall’s election, the National Council of State Legislatures reported 43 states and the District of Columbia were already offering early voting, with early voting periods ranging from four to 45 days (including four western states and Hawaii, which have converted to mail-in-ballots for all).  

Since then, Kentucky — which hasn’t before allowed early voting — just last month opened a 45-day window for ordering absentee ballots, allowed three days of early in-person voting, and provided for ballot drop boxes as well. Also, Delaware’s expanded voting provisions will be effective next year.

However, since the 2020 election and partisan combat over ballot honesty and security in the presidential race, a host of Republican-controlled legislatures have moved to tighten voting rules and curtail some voting options.

In part, state legislatures are reforming election laws and procedures after many states made significant and emergency accommodations for earlier voting during a pandemic. Changes passed so far by GOP-controlled Georgia and Kentucky legislatures — despite other criticisms — accommodate increased early and absentee voting.

The Brennan Center reports 361 voter-restricting bills had been introduced in 47 legislatures by late March, and 29 of them had passed at least one chamber.

On the other hand, Brennan reported 843 bills introduced in 47 states had expansive voter provisions, 18 of which had either passed both chambers or had been signed into law. Of the total introduced, more than half addressed absentee voting or ease registration.

Ed Maixner is a retired journalist who edited the Kiplinger Agricultural Letter and who now writes for Previously, he led the Washington Bureau at Farm Progress Companies and served as a legislative assistant to U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota. Follow him on Twitter @CowPokeEd

Tags Absentee ballot Early voting Elections mail-in ballots Postal voting Vote by Mail Voting

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