Does ‘Early Voting’ Reduce Voter Turnout?
Montgomery County’s political grievance machine has been generating much sound and fury over its Board of Elections decision not to locate a 12th Early Voting center in White Oak. In September, County Council Member Tom Hucker referred to the decision as “the very definition of voter suppression.”[i] More recently a so-called emergency bill has been filed in the General Assembly to reverse the Board of Elections’ decision.[ii] (This despite a total of four other sites already located within six miles of the proposed new location.)
Lost in the shrill claims about “voter suppression” remains a nagging question, might Early Voting be having the exact opposite result in its supposed impact of increasing turnout?
An academic review of the evidence on turnout in early voting jurisdictions concludes that more voting days reduces, not increases turnout. “Turnout: The Unanticipated Consequences of Election Reform” in the prestigious American Journal of Political Science conducted a statistically rigorous analysis reaching this conclusion.[iii]
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While the conclusion certainly runs counter to the expectations of Early Voting advocates, the authors offer the possible explanation that: “early voting has created negative unanticipated consequences by reducing the civic significance of elections for individuals and altering the incentives for political campaigns to invest in mobilization.”
In less academic prose, this means that a single election day allows more resources to be focused on mobilizing turnout, while spreading voting over a longer period results in “lower probability” voters failing to do so.
Consider, too, that one long-standing method for voter suppression involves creating confusion about when Election Day is. “Primary Day is Tuesday for Candidate X and on Wednesday for Candidate Y.” Early voting schemes apparently have, in effect, the unintended consequence of creating similar confusion about when to vote.
In fact, by way of comparison, both buried in the statistics and not particularly well discussed in the text, the study concludes that early voting reduces turnout even more than requiring voters to furnish personal identification.
Another, more recent study, “Early voting, direct democracy, and voter mobilization” by Brian D. Williams, pending publication in the Social Science Journal, reviewed data from the 2016 US presidential election in Escambia County, Florida. This analysis found that while so-called “core voters” tend to use early voting options, more peripheral voters can be more effectively mobilized by being encouraged to vote by absentee ballot.[iv]
The conclusions of these academic studies are also reflected in Maryland’s own first turnout experience after Early Voting was introduced. In the 2014 primary, statewide voter turnout dropped from the prior election to just 22% of those eligible. Only 16.2% of Montgomery’s 630,000 eligible voters cast ballots on primary day or during the eight-day early voting window. If Early Voting really encouraged turnout, then participation rates should not have gone down.
Still, Montgomery County’s Council and its General Assembly delegation remain committed to expanding an apparently failed approach at increasing voter turnout. The Board of Elections, on the other hand, deserves credit for its faithful implementation of state law’s existing Early Voting requirements. The personal invective directed at them remains unwarranted.
Maybe if Republicans had been the ones to originally propose “Early Voting,” the Tom Huckers of the political world would now be accusing the party of using it to advance a devious voter suppression strategy. Or maybe, our General Assembly Republicans should suggest that “Early Voting” sites should be confined to only majority Democratic counties in the state, as Republicans focus on maximizing absentee ballots with their voters. (Just kidding?)