In much of the country, this year is full of new rules and schedules related to when and how you vote. In some places, like Oregon and Washington, this whole business of “voting early” is nothing new at all, and for those encountering new approaches, a few lessons from the experienced may be worth considering.
One key to how to consider it involves thinking not of “early” voting but of “spread-out” voting. It’s not that all votes are cast a couple of weeks ahead of what we might think of as deadline day - in this case, November 3. It’s that the voting takes place over a stretched-out period of time.
And there are two big advantages to that, one in the bigger picture - the good-government picture - and one that affords advantages to candidates and parties interested in taking advantage of it.
The first advantage is the quashing of late-breaking negative campaigning. I’ve seen it over the years, and if you’ve been around a while, so have you: The news story or ad or mailer or flyer drop, or whatever, that contains some (hopefully) devastating attack against the opposition, delivered only two or three or four days before the day everybody votes, which would be on a Tuesday. That means weekends before election day can be sensitive times indeed … if everyone’s voting on Tuesday.
Recovering from such an attack at that time can be hard to do: There’s often not time enough to get a rebuttal message out. People have time only to absorb the initial message and react reflexively, which often means emotionally and thoughtlessly. And the kind of candidates who engage in those kinds of behaviors, as many have over the years, often aren’t the kind of people you want in elective office. But then, such tactics can work.
Suppose, though, the voting is spread out over two or three weeks. There’s no one precise moment when making the information drop is going to help enormously; it immediately affects the votes of only a few people, and afterward there’s time to pause and review.
Spread-out voting tends to make for more careful and reflective voting.
From a political organizer’s point of view, there’s another advantage.
While the votes cast by a voter remain confidential throughout the process, the fact that a specific person voted becomes public information as soon as the ballot reaches the county elections office. That means, ordinarily, that if a political organizer wants to determine who has voted, they can.
Why might this be important? Once a person has voted, you can scratch them off your to-do list: No longer any need to try to reach that person, by phone, mail or otherwise, from this point on. They’re done. On the other hand, if you see that someone hasn’t voted, this is a person you still want to get after if you think they’re one of yours. If you’re a day or two out from election day and this batch of voters hasn’t get been accounted for, you can go after them.
In theory that same principle can apply on election day, but there instead of days to learn who has and hasn’t voted and to act on that information, you have hours and minutes. You can go after those people, in theory, but there’s hardly any time to make a dent.
Don’t be surprised if spread-out voting catches on in a big way even after this Covid-19 year is done. A lot of people stand to benefit.