Is early or weekend voting desirable?

Is this how YOU get to the polls? (photo by glesgagirl59)

Is this how YOU get to the polls? (photo by glesgagirl59)

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a political philosopher at Harvard University, referring to Robert Putnam’s book arguing that as Americans have withdrawn from community and civic activities, our sense of trust and political engagement has declined.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).


3 responses to “Is early or weekend voting desirable?

  1. I don’t buy it. The same sort of silly nostalgia that characterizes Putnam appears to characterize Thompson and Fisher’s opinions, but in an odd contradiction that privileges voting as the ultimate act of civic engagement, in stark contrast to Putnam’s focus on community organizations.

    Voting booths are not, and never have been, a place for community gathering — especially in large population centers. Rather, they have been sites of intimidation, chaos, inefficiency, and low turnout.

    If early voting can address any of those problems (and, at the very least, it should increase turnout), then it is a net gain for democracy.

    That being said, election day should definitely be a federal holiday.

  2. I sent Fisher an email after reading his opinion piece.

    I generally agree with much of what Putnam wrote, but I don’t think early-voting is a threat to community. There were plenty of folks in line when I voted early, just not as many as there will be on election nite.

    My experience has been, whether voting early or not, folks will chat, but not about their election choices.

  3. Exactly, Brad. It’s astonishing that this sort of drivel can coexist with an electorate, 42% of whom doubt the integrity of the vote.

    Given the massive and systematic voter suppression by the Republicans, whioch have given them not only the presidency twice in sequence but any number of down ticket contests, the poor turn out of African Americans and largely Democratic constituencies, the in person ID challenges, fouled voting machines etc (which are covered by the Bradley hypothesis) and the pernicious effect this cheating has had on the interests of most Americans, it’s not hard to imagine whom this blather can serve.

    The reasoning was also specious. Just because “early voting” has tended to be dominated by the better educated (partly because this includes ‘absents’) doesn’t mean it need be ever so. In Georgia right now, roughly 36% of early voters are African American, in a state where the account for about 29% of registered voters and where participation is commonly under 20% of the total vote.

    One also suspects that of early voters, it will be the poorer and first timers who get challenged on ID, but who, given time, can eventually cast a valid vote.

    It’s far more a ‘community activity’ to be part of a GOTV and having voted, spending the next ten days or so encouraging your peers to do likewise.

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