By Rick Carter and Philip Young
One of the biggest changes in the way campaigns have been run in recent years is the creation - or expansion - of "absentee" or "early" voting. Currently, 31 states have in place some form of early voting, and interest in voting by mail has increased nationally. Some states have changed their laws to allow all voters to cast ballots by mail for any reason.
The expansion of "early voting" has come about because elected officials - and officials in both political parties - have encouraged ways to expand voting and make voting more accessible to more citizens. Supporters of reforms designed to provide early access to the ballot often claim benefits of higher voter participation rates, more accurate ballot counts, reduced administrative cost to the taxpayer and, ultimately, a more informed, thoughtful electorate.
The increase in the number of voters taking advantage of this method of voting has changed the way campaigns are run and is adding to the expense and length of modern campaigns. Early voting contributes to the complication of the already hectic campaign season. Better-funded campaigns are positioned to take advantage of early voting laws by having more to spend on phone banks, mailings and other tactics to specifically target early voters.
Early voting and the efforts associated with it are a reflection of voters’ busy lives and the complications associated with work, child care, weather, etc. - as well as more complex ballots filled with initiatives and referendums that are oftentimes difficult to understand. Early voting allows voters the time to sit at the kitchen table and consider, research or discuss candidates and what are sometimes complex ballot questions before casting their ballot. Additionally, national surveys have shown that voters who utilize absentee or early voting ballots are generally older, more affluent, better educated and more partisan.
One question asked by those who govern our election laws is how far early voting should be allowed to go, and by what means. Currently in Nebraska, early voting can only take place through the U.S. Mail, or by a voter physically going into an election office and filling out their ballot in person, or delivering their ballot to the election office. But some have talked about being able to vote online, or even by phone.
One issue that must be answered in all of these early voting methods is ballot security. How do you maintain the security of voting through some of these alternative proposals? There are enough challenges in maintaining ballot security in the ways we currently use to vote. Who can forget the "hanging chads" in Florida, the many stories of overzealous activists illegally "stuffing" ballot boxes, or voting machine discrepancies when tallying votes? But no matter the method, the integrity of our voting system must be maintained at the highest level or our elections become irrelevant. If the citizens cannot trust their election process, why even bother to vote?
Early voting practices vary from state to state. Some states have instituted elections that are solely "vote by mail," where election officials mail ballots to voters and there isn’t a specific election day, although there is a deadline for returning the mail-in ballots. In California, a recent news article predicted that in at least two counties a majority of votes for their 2008 presidential primary election would be cast through the mail rather than in person at neighborhood precincts. In Nebraska, some local elections have been conducted in this manner, usually for special elections or bond issues.
But the biggest impact on campaigns has come through the early voting process put in place during even-numbered years for our regularly scheduled state and federal elections. In those elections, Nebraska voters can request an early voting ballot 120 days prior to an election. In 2008, that day was Jan. 14. However, election commissioners may send ballots out to early voters only 35 days prior to Election Day. In the 2008 primary election, early voting starts on April 7.
For the general election period, July 6 is the first day to request an early voting ballot, and Sept. 29 is the first day early voters can cast their ballots for the eventual winners and losers in the 2008 general election. A quick look at the history of voting in Nebraska tells the story of how early voting has increased in recent elections:
12,573 Early Vote (3.8 percent of total votes)
80,452 Early Vote (11.3 percent)
13,861 Early Vote (5.7 percent)
42,464 Early Vote (8.6 percent)
15,666 Early Vote (6.8 percent)
107,740 Early Vote (13.5 percent)
36,740 Early Vote (9.1 percent)
107,746 Early Vote (17.6 percent)
Especially noteworthy are the percentages of the total votes cast. When a "blowout" election is deemed to be a margin of 10 percent or more, the early voters’ significance can begin to be recognized. When nearly 18 percent of all voters cast their ballots early in the 2006 general election, that percentage of the vote was enough to sway almost every election. That large of a percentage cannot be ignored by candidates and their campaigns, and that’s where the big challenge has arisen in the strategies and tactics of how modern campaigns are run.
Part of the increase in early voting has been driven by the activities of political parties and campaigns themselves. When a voter can be positively identified as supporting Candidate A, it behooves Candidate A’s campaign to get a ballot in that voter’s hand as soon as possible, make sure he or she fills it out, and make sure it gets mailed back in. Great effort has been placed on identifying voters who have made up their minds early in the process and making sure their votes have been captured. Technology has played a key role in this activity, but old-fashioned grassroots organization is still vital in making an early voting strategy successful.
Both political parties, and even candidates, have started mailing "ballot request forms" to frequent voters in each party. These mailings are often "chased" by a phone call or another mailing touting the good qualities of the respective party’s candidates in the hope that the voter will fill out their ballot while this information is still fresh in their minds. This is the most common tactic used by campaigns in driving the early voting. But when almost 20 percent - nearly one-fifth of the total number of voters - are voting early (up to 35 days prior to Election Day), what does that mean for the long-held strategy of saving your money for the "final push"? How does that affect your "72-hour" plan? Does that mean your last four weeks of television, radio, direct mail and door-to-door efforts are becoming more and more meaningless?
And, with voters starting to vote as early as 35 days prior to Election Day, does that mean your television, mail, phone calls and door-to-door activity needs to be started a full month earlier, making what many citizens feel are long campaigns even longer?
Those are the questions current campaign operatives are trying to analyze and answer. That is also why technologies such as the use of the Internet, e-mail and "micro-targeting" have become more and more important to modern campaigns. Is it a wise use of limited financial resources to buy a television ad played to a broad general audience where only 50 percent of those who watch it will vote, and of that 50 percent, 20 percent of them have already voted? Or does it make more sense to make targeted phone calls, do targeted mail, conduct targeted door-to-door outreach and send targeted e-mails to voters you know are likely to vote, but you’re not sure who they’re going to be voting for? And, do you wait until the final weeks to drop a "gotcha" ad on your opponent, or do it sooner so early voters will see it, thus giving your opponent more time to respond?
When as much as 20 percent of the voters are going to be voting early, and most elections are decided by a margin of 15 percent or less, it becomes clear to see why the early voting phenomenon has caused campaigns to take a step back, study their strategies, and determine the best use of every campaign’s limited resources.
Early voting changes and reforms - as with all political reforms - have both an upside and a downside. Opponents to early voting argue that as people cast their ballots well before the campaign has ended, they potentially miss important information about the candidates. Also, the sense of Election Day as a community wide, civic event is also diminished when 20 percent or more of the electorate has voted early and thus checked out of the campaign. Proponents argue that early voting reduces the individual’s cost of voting and makes the ballot counting procedure more accurate and efficient, which is no small concern, given recent problems with voting technology. Most importantly, proponents argue that early voting is a necessary tool to addressing declining voter registration and participation figures.
Voting by mail - and early voting reforms in general - are not cure-alls for low levels of voter participation in the United States. Voting laws are just one piece of the electoral puzzle which includes many players and many institutions as varied as newspapers, radio, television, election administrators, elected officials, candidates, political parties, interest groups and activist organizations. All of these actors play roles in helping and harming participation. The rules of the game obviously structure the behavior of these players, but it is the actions of the players that ultimately have the greatest impact on democratic participation and democratic choice in our republican form of government.