Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Does Election Day have a future?


Later this week I'm going to make myself dig through the four pages (!) of my California state and San Francisco City and County official vote-by-mail ballot. When I get the morass of local measures and state propositions figured out, I'll post my thinking here.

I'm what used to be called a "permanent absentee voter." I didn't get myself into that group because I like early voting -- it's just that for years I've had more important work than going to the polls to do on Election Day.

But I've never been particularly comfortable with early voting as a cure-all for what ails our elections. By extending the voting window, it makes campaigns longer and more expensive because the hard-hitting media and get-out-the-vote work needs to be constant from whenever in October the ballots become available. That's not cheap. Moreover, there has been little evidence that early voting does much for enlarging the electorate; a good deal of research suggests that early voting options are easily adopted (and appreciated) by people who already have the voting habit. The convenience option hasn't easily attracted people for whom voting is a new experience: young people, new citizens, and people who have felt pushed to the margins of "the system." Much more here and here.

In 2008, I watched the Obama campaign make early voting something of a social experience and applauded. The social character of Election Day, the sense of taking part in something communal that is emblematic of the national life, is diminished when casting a ballot is an individual act done in private and completed with a walk to any corner mail box. The Obama people were trying to generate a collective excitement about early voting.

With this background, I was fascinated by David Plouffe's account in The Audacity to Win of the 2008 campaign's experience. They put a vast amount of their abundant resources for field mobilization into getting out the early vote because they believed they could use it to turn out infrequent voters. That surprised me, but I've never had their kind of resources in a campaign. Plouffe writes...

... because we were so dependent on first-time and sporadic voters, we mustered an intense effort toward executing early vote. This effort consisted of radio ads reminding people of early vote and explaining how it worked; a fusillade of internet ads to push the concept; repeated e-mail and text messaging to people on our list from these states; and a blizzard of door-knocks and phone calls to remind voters person-to-person about early vote. We also tried to make sure all our volunteers voted early so that they would be freed up to help on Election Day.

Some in political circles argue that the early vote doesn't matter -- that the people who go to the effort to vote early are committed voters who will almost certainly show up on Election Day. We fervently believed that if a hurdle presented itself on Election Day -- a family issue; a work emergency; transportation problems -- nonhabitual voters are the most likely people to throw in the towel on making it to the polls. These are the folks we relentlessly encouraged to vote early and the yardstick to which we paid closest attention -- not how many early votes we were getting, but whose. Were enough first-time voters voting early? How about African American sporadic voters? In addition to allowing us to make sure we were voting large numbers of our most questionable turnout targets, it also gave us a window into overall changes in turnout from previous elections, which helped us determine whether we were really changing the electorate. ...

For all they put into it, they were surprised by a resistance they encountered, one previous research and experience would have suggested.

As we began moving deeper into early vote, one number caused alarm. Carson came into my office one afternoon. "I've been poring over the early vote data," he said, "and we seem to have a problem. Or what could be a problem, I should say. We're meeting or exceeding our early-vote goals in most demographics across most states. But younger voters-under twenty-five-are off quite a bit."

... [He] ... suggested doing some research among this group to try to find out why they were not voting early in great numbers. Did we have a motivation problem, an execution problem, or both?

I green-lighted the research, which yielded two very illuminating findings. First, many young voters were so excited by this election that they couldn't envision doing anything besides voting for Barack Obama in person at the polling location. When we raised with them the possibility of long lines, or the potential to free themselves up to volunteer, they simply wouldn't budge. This was a big moment for them and they felt it would seem bigger if they voted at the polls. In any case, they were still dead-set on participating, which relieved us.

The second lesson was that there was still some confusion about who was eligible to vote early and how it worked. Armed with these findings, we made sure our communications to younger voters included even more remedial information about the nuts and bolts of early voting. ...

My emphasis. Those two points of resistance were exactly what I would have expected -- because they are where voting as a social experience is diluted by the long early voting period. I would not be surprised if they had found the same pattern among new citizens and in some communities of color, though Plouffe isn't telling.

One of the reasons states and municipalities are going to mail ballots and extended voting periods is that the technology to run elections is advancing rapidly. Perhaps someday universal secure online voting will eliminate polling places altogether -- it might also shorten some of the long voting periods now required for mail-in balloting. This could also get rid of the anachronistic idea of holding elections on a Tuesday; maybe the ultimate voting day could be a Saturday or even a holiday.

The full implications of technical changes in voting are hard to foresee. I fear they might lead to much more abstention from participation as the sense of a living, shared civic ritual receded. We need to think hard about how to recreate a sense of communal excitement about electoral participation if we aren't going to have such visible, collective Election Days in the future. Very few campaigns are going to have the kind of money Obama had in 2008 to do this, working in place of election authorities, though within their rules. Staging attractive civic rituals has to be a government function in a living democracy. There's a thought to drive the Teabaggers mad.

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