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The Sweet Spot for Election Reform

Election reform is always tricky. The aim is, as with all reform, to make the system better. But because election reform is now subject to lots of ideological posturing and has always had substantial partisan effects, successful reform needs to be more than a good idea. It has to be an idea that will survive an ideological debate and appeal to the self-interested legislators who are passing it. There’s a sweet spot for election reform, in other words. It has to be the electoral equivalent of a trifecta – a winner along policymaking, ideological, and political lines.

Early voting should be just that kind of reform. That claim is obviously going to raise some eyebrows because the practice has already proved to be divisive. But if policymakers paid more attention to data and less attention to anecdotes, they’d realize that early voting is one of the rare reforms to hit the sweet spot.

Policymaking. First, early voting is good policy. It’s not a perfect policy. If our election system weren’t so underfunded, we might prefer to have everyone voting on the same day. The community norms that push people to vote may erode if we all vote on different days. Long, drawn-out periods of early voting can raise troubling questions about late-breaking political scandals. But in the real world, a sensibly designed early voting system is an excellent second-best solution. By spreading voting out over a period of days, early voting helps reduce the pressure placed on our overburdened election system and our overworked election administrators.

Best of all, as voters have come to crave convenience in voting, early voting is a secure, efficient, and dependable means of providing it. Professor Paul Gronke’s excellent Early Voting Information Center documents the noteworthy increase in both early voting and absentee voting over the last few election cycles. Both policies are attractive to voters who value convenience. Both policies engender the same worries about communal norms and late-breaking scandals. But absentee voting is inferior to early voting along most other dimensions. As two well-regarded political scientists have recently explained, “absentee ballots are less secure, more expensive, often confusing, cumbersome to prepare and process, and less likely to be counted.”

The most important point to emphasize from that damning set of comparisons is the risk of fraud, which is significantly higher for absentee balloting than early voting. To understand why, just imagine for a moment that you wanted to steal an election. Would you drive a busload of, say, a hundred illegal voters from polling place to polling place – picking up a hundred votes here and a hundred votes there — in the hope that your massive, multi-actor conspiracy never came to light? Or would you stuff a few ballot boxes with absentee ballots? Those who commit election fraud have plainly gravitated toward the latter strategy, and with good reason. The security checks available for in-person early voting, in contrast, are just as robust as those available for in-person voting on Election Day, where evidence of fraud is almost nonexistent.

Ideology. The fact that early voting is both convenient and secure is also what makes it ideologically viable. There are two important camps in debates over election reform. The “access” camp, which favors making voting easier and more accessible. And the “integrity” camp, which insists that the voting process should be secure and shielded from fraud. As far as voters are concerned, the debate is a bit silly. While ideological warriors insist that we have to choose one over the other, voters (sensibly) want both: convenience and security, access and integrity. And that’s just what early voting provides. The ideological warriors, in short, should be fighting on this same side of this battle.

Politics. The most important question, of course, is the political one. Can we convince self-interested partisans to put early voting into place? The conventional wisdom is that early voting increases turnout and increased turnout favors Democrats. Cynics believe that’s why Republican legislatures have been reducing early voting opportunities across the country. As far as we can tell, however, early voting doesn’t increase turnout. It affects when voters cast a ballot, but not whether they do. Republicans have been misled, then, by anecdotes generated by the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. Lots of people stood in line to vote early during both elections, but it turns out they would have voted anyway.

Happily, the politics may shift as we get more information about the cost of voting. Comparative cost data are hard to come by. The information we have, however, suggests that early voting is also a winner on the financial front. For example, Minnesota’s Joe Mansky – a widely admired election administrator and one of the very few with good data on the subject – has stated that early voting costs $3.80 per ballot whereas an absentee ballot costs $7.28 to process. Given how much more cumbersome absentee ballots are to process, those numbers are unsurprising. The fact that early voting is good policy may not be enough to win the day in the current political environment. But what if it turns out that early voting is cheaper than the alternative? That’s the kind of trump card one likes to play in politics. Maybe, just maybe, it will be enough to push politicians to do the right thing.

Heather Gerken is the J. Skelly Wright Professor of Law at Yale Law School and a member of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform. 

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