Early voting’s opponents often show a shocking lack of knowledge about how our democracy actually works.
Last week Politico’s new online magazine, aptly titled Politico Magazine, published a piece by Eugene Kontorovich and John McGinnis, two professors of constitutional law at Northwestern University, that argues that early voting is bad for our democracy because it causes people to deliberate less when casting their vote. As they put it:
For all its conveniences, early voting threatens the basic nature of citizen choice in democratic, republican government. In elections, candidates make competing appeals to the people and provide them with the information necessary to be able to make a choice. Citizens also engage with one another, debating and deliberating about the best options for the country. Especially in an age of so many nonpolitical distractions, it is important to preserve the space of a general election campaign — from the early kickoff rallies to the last debates in October — to allow voters to think through, together, the serious issues that face the nation.
This is an interesting theory about early voting, but unfortunately it’s just not based in reality.
Political scientists have shown for over two decades now that the highly “deliberative” model of voters coming into elections as blank slates ready to digest information and deliberate to make rational choices about who to vote for is just not true. Instead, most of the American electorate is composed of what they like to call “partisans,” that is, people who will by and large support one party over another over time in different elections.
To confound McGinnis and Kontorovich’s analysis even more it’s these partisans that tend to follow politics intensely. While the actual population of “true independents,” people who will vote for different parties over time, tend to be people who don’t pay much attention politics in the first place! To put it in layman’s terms: your conservative uncle who watches Fox and agrees with The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page is going to probably vote for whoever the GOP candidate is in 2016 no matter how many arguments about Obamacare you have with him. Just as your liberal sister-in-law who watches All In with Chris Hayes and reads The Nation is going to probably vote for whoever the Democrats nominate, even if you argue with her for an hour about slow job growth under Obama.
Meanwhile the person that will actually not know who they are going to vote for in September 2016 is the person who will probably have to be reminded that there is in fact an election coming up.
So does this mean that debate and argument over politics is pointless and we are all doomed? Not at all! And the reason is pretty simple; in a Democracy any one reason for casting a vote is just as legitimate as any other. Personally, I’ve talked to lots of voters who often vote based on a single issue or a general sense of the parties that has nothing to do with president debates, media spin, or “October surprises.” Like someone whose big issue is instituting a legal ban on abortion and thus will vote for the Republican presidential nominee no matter what. Just as I’ve talked to people who say something along the lines of, “oh I vote for the Democrats because the Republicans are the party of the rich, and I’m not rich.” These reasons are every bit as legitimate as the reasons arrived at by some law professor who agonizes, or pretends to agonize, for months about who to vote for. Because in a system of self government the reasons citizens arrive at for casting ballots are in the end the reasons that drive our democracy.
So while some people may want to agonize about who to vote for down to 7:30pm on Election Day, for those of us who are confident in our party and our reasoning, letting us cast a ballot a few weeks early hardly damages democracy. Instead it just makes it easier for people who agonize or those procrastinators who put voting off until the last second to actually cast a ballot.
Meanwhile McGinnis and Kontorovich’s piece largely ignores the very real problems that, unlike their vague hand-wringing about how casting a ballot early is bad for “debate,” actually exist in our democracy in the form of absurdly long wait times and other problems at the polls. Since early voting represents a great way to help mitigate these very real problems it makes perfect sense to keep it, and perhaps expand it.
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