Voting early more of­ten

Our view: Mary­land is poised to break a record for early voting, but we should still look for ways to make ac­cess­ing the bal­lot box eas­ier

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

Even be­fore Mary­land’s week­long pe­riod of early voting con­cludes Thurs­day night, voter turnout records have been set. At the cur­rent pace, it’s ex­pected that more than 800,000 Mary­land vot­ers will have cast their bal­lots at one of the state’s 69 early voting cen­ters this year. If turnout is sim­i­lar to 2012, that will rep­re­sent about one-third of all Mary­land’s votes cast, even more if the state’s 200,000 out­stand­ing ab­sen­tees are in­cluded.

By any mea­sure, that makes this state’s six-year ex­pe­ri­ence with early voting an ex­tra­or­di­nary suc­cess in at least one re­gard — it has made it eas­ier to vote. The im­pact on turnout in 2016? That won’t be known un­til af­ter Elec­tion Day, of course, but on the na­tional level, re­search has sug­gested it may im­prove turnout by 2 per­cent to 4 per­cent.

There are two of­ten-heard crit­i­cisms of early voting — that it causes vot­ers to make de­ci­sions too early and that it en­ables fraud. Given that in-per­son voter fraud is such a rar­ity in Mary­land and else­where, re­strict­ing early voting be­cause of it is a bit like say­ing we ought to build fences to keep uni­corns off the high­ways. But the re­cent dis­clo­sure by FBI Di­rec­tor James Comey to Con­gress that his agents are cur­rently ex­am­in­ing email po­ten­tially rel­e­vant to the agency’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Hil­lary Clin­ton’s use of a pri­vate server when she was sec­re­tary of state cer­tainly high­lights the in­formed-elec­torate ques­tion.

But maybe not by much. It’s un­likely vot­ers will be any bet­ter in­formed about the email by the time Elec­tion Day rolls around. And given the state of mis­in­for­ma­tion com­ing from the var­i­ous cam­paigns and sup­port­ers, and es­pe­cially on so­cial me­dia, the broader claim that the elec­torate will be bet­ter in­formed to­mor­row, the next day or next week is cer­tainly quaint but prob­a­bly naive.

Here’s the real im­pact. Wait­ing lines are shorter, at least gen­er­ally. While early voting cen­ter lines may be their longest on Thurs­day (tra­di­tion­ally the busiest early voting day), they have not been nearly as bad as in years past. And bet­ter yet, a big­ger turnout for early voting means that Mary­land’s 1,900 or so polling places will be that much less in­un­dated this Tues­day.

That was one of the con­clu­sions, in­ci­den­tally, of a thought­ful 2014 re­port on early voting by the Univer­sity of Bal­ti­more’s Schae­fer Cen­ter for Public Pol­icy, which found peo­ple who voted early were gen­er­ally happy with the ex­pe­ri­ence. The study also caused some changes — in­clud­ing in­creas­ing the num­ber of voting cen­ters statewide from 47 to 69.

Such a study group ought to be con­vened again. Mary­land might con­sider, for ex­am­ple, con­duct­ing its week­long early voting pe­riod Sun­day-to-Sun­day prior to an elec­tion rather than Thurs­day-to-Thurs­day. The rea­son it doesn’t to­day is Crowds line up on the first day of early voting in Bal­ti­more. A record num­ber of Mary­lan­ders have voted early this year. sim­ply a mat­ter of tech­nol­ogy and cost — up­dat­ing Elec­tion Day polling books to re­flect early voting takes time. In­vest $2 mil­lion or more to net­work the state’s polling places, and the la­bor-in­ten­sive up­dates would no longer be a stum­bling block.

There are other mat­ters that ought to be stud­ied as well — uni­ver­sal voter regis­tra­tion (that is, re­quir­ing a qual­i­fied per­son to opt-out rather than opt-in), ex­pand­ing the pool of elec­tion judges and al­low­ing Mary­lan­ders to take bal­lot self­ies. That last one may seem ob­scure, but in a world of Twit­ter and Face­book, it seems rea­son­able to al­low peo­ple to ex­press their en­thu­si­asm for voting as long as it doesn’t com­pro­mise the pri­vacy of oth­ers.

One more ob­ser­va­tion about early voting: The high turnout this week could mean that Mary­land polling places will be packed on Nov. 8. In 2012, 430,573 peo­ple took ad­van­tage of early voting in the gen­eral elec­tion, and in 2014, it was 307,646. That this year’s to­tal hit 609,000 by Tues­day could be an in­di­ca­tor of turnout as much as an ex­pres­sion of pref­er­ence for early voting — or of a worry about voter sup­pres­sion ef­forts on Elec­tion Day.

Con­ven­tional wis­dom is that early voting fa­vors the el­derly and the par­ti­san and that Democrats in Mary­land have en­dorsed it sim­ply be­cause they have ef­fec­tive get-out-the-vote op­er­a­tions that ben­e­fit from the big­ger win­dow of op­por­tu­nity. All of that may be true, but get­ting more peo­ple to vote — whether they pre­fer Ms. Clin­ton or Don­ald Trump or any­one else — ought to be a high pri­or­ity for any democ­racy. Even if the Mary­land tally reaches or ex­ceeds 2012’s 2.7 mil­lion, it will still far, far short of the 3.9 mil­lion reg­is­tered vot­ers. As pop­u­lar as early voting has be­come, we should still work to make it bet­ter.


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