An Op-ed in the NYT “Everybody’s Voting for the Weekend” (Steve Israel/Norman Ornstein, 10/24/08) makes clear that the fact that we vote on Tuesdays is a historical anomaly, born of the days when we had to vote at the county seat and it took a day to travel in both directions. As the title suggests, Israel/Ornstein favor weekend voting.
A thought piece in the Washington Post by Marc Fisher makes clear that there is more at stake than simply trying to increase voter turnout. He deplores early voting laws that spread the vote out over weeks. Citing my colleague Bob Putnam, Fisher notes that voting is a collective act, a chance to affirm one’s commitment in front of one’s neighbors:
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a political philosopher at Harvard University, referring to Robert Putnam’s book arguing that as Americans have withdrawn from community and civic activities, our sense of trust and political engagement has declined.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.
And while in Obama’s case, it looks like early voting favors disaffected African-American voters drawn to the polls for the first time in decades, who might otherwise not vote amidst the long lines and delays on Election Day or have their right to vote questioned, history shows otherwise.
“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….
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 may be that weekend voting is the best compromise: enabling more people to vote, easing the hunt for poll workers (whose average age is now usually in their 70s or 80s), delaying early voting until more of the electorate is well informed, and increasing the communal aspect of voting, even if spread out over two days.
See Marc Fisher’s “In Early Voting Trend, Democracy is the Biggest Loser” (Washington Post, 10/24/08).