Evaluation of Early/Absentee Voting for the 2016 Election

Key Facts

Terms

Early voting by mail in its simplest form is absentee voting.  The voter typically applies for an absentee ballot by mail with their local county offices, the ballot is mailed to the voter and the voter then mails the voted ballot back to their local county offices, according to the deadlines set forth by the state.  There is also now a new system in which all ballots in an election are cast by mail.  Oregon, Washington and Coloradohave just adopted this system for all elections, and it is also used in selected counties in some states[v]. 

Early voting in person is a lesser-known form of early voting, in which a voter goes to his local county office during a set period before an election and casts a vote in the office or at satellite voting stations.  This may be as simple as using a regular voting machine or filling out a normal ballot or it may involve filling out an application for an absentee ballot in person and then voting and handing in that ballot all at the same time. 

Easy Voting (EZ Voting) refers to how easy the state makes it for voters to cast a ballot before Election Day, either by mail or in person. Easy Voting States are states that allow a voter to cast a ballot early without having to provide any kind of reason for doing so.  The more traditional rules for voting early require the voter to provide a reason for doing so, and these states cannot yet be considered Easy Voting States.  More and more states are now changing their election law to allow voters to vote early without reason.

Overview

As states have gradually adapted programs to permit early voting or to at least loosen the definition of those who are eligible to request absentee ballots, the consequences for election strategy are unmistakable – if as yet not well understood.  

Evidence from a preliminary study of the 2002 election indicates that early/absentee voting is becoming both more frequent and more important to election outcomes.  One can conclude that an evaluation of this information will encourage groups whose registration efforts are unprecedented to also engage in an aggressive and elongated campaign to get out the vote.

Early voting is for everyone, not just those we assume are likely to be away on Election Day.  According to Census Bureau information, only 8.8% of the 19 million registered voters who did not cast ballots in the 2008 election were kept away from the polls because they were out of town.  More than twice that many said they were simply too busy while 14% said they were ill or had a disability that interfered.  A combination of weather and transportation problems affected less than 3%.  This suggests that it is wrong, perhaps even old-fashioned and elitist, to narrow an appeal for potential absentee voters to business travelers or overscheduled business executives[vi]. 

Oregon, Washington and Colorado are the ultimate example of the elongated election period because they have 100% mail-out ballots that can be returned by mail or dropped off at designated spots for a period of weeks leading up Election Day.

Impact on Turnout

If we accept the data provided by the Census Bureau study of approximately 15 million registered non-voters in the 2008 general election, only 13.4% didn’t vote because they had no interest.  That means 86.6% of registered non-voters could be brought into the voter pool if an absentee ballot or early voting option were available.  It eliminates the “too inconvenient” and “forgot” as excuses as well as other barriers related to lifestyle[vii].

The growth of these policies means that states with very low turnout in 2008 might see a surge in participation.  Among many of the fastest growing states, voter turnout was even less or stayed the same in 2008 compared to 2004.  This includes Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Texas and Florida[viii]. 

The slow-growth states were also affected by lower turnout in places such West Virginia, Illinois and Pennsylvania. Obviously, not all of these are presidential battleground states, but all have important factors in play that will affect business issues[ix].  

Examples of 2008 and 2012 Experience with Early/Absentee Voting[x]

Montana

Florida

North Carolina

Colorado

Examples of Untapped Potential for Early Voting

Maryland

Nebraska

Illinois

Indiana

South Dakota

Vermont

 

Additional References
2010 early voting
2010 results
2008 results
Early voting laws
2010 voter turnout
Presidential year early voting