Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The (Early) Voting Begins!

Barack Obama took the lead in the presidential race yesterday. No, not the polls, although he has certainly taken the lead there. Voting began for real yesterday as new state laws that allow early voting and campaigns seek to take advantage.

In Columbus, Ohio in 2004, voters waited in long lines to cast their ballots. At some polling places the wait was more than an hour. People with two jobs may not be able to afford that kind of time on a Tuesday. Yesterday, an early voting polling station opened in Columbus and, again, there was a long line: College students had camped out the night before to be the first people to vote the next morning. They were the first to cast their ballots in the 2008 election and, given Obama’s strength among young, college age voters, it is safe to guess that he has taken an early lead in this most swinging of swing states.

In Oregon, this will be the second election in which there are no polling stations. Everyone votes by mail in Oregon. Nationwide, as many as one-third of votes are expected to be cast early. In 2004, only 20 percent of ballots were cast in advance of election day.

Anything that increases the franchise is a good thing. For many voters, balancing multiple jobs and the demand of parenthood, getting to the polls is difficult enough, but getting there and finding a long line is sure to discourage at least some would-be voters. Still, I worry about the effects of beginning the process so early. What if developments in the last week of the race, or even in the remaining debates, might cause someone to change their mind? A two week window seems appropriate but a full month of early voting seems a little long.

Additionally, the objective of greater voter participation might be achieved by declaring election day a public holiday. I prefer this alternative because it would emphasize the civic nature of voting: It is something we do all together, even though we guard the privacy of our choice. Of course, we would still need absentee ballots for those who cannot make it to the polls on election day whether it is a holiday or not. But, voting is like liturgy: It is a communal act, not an individual act. Certainly, students on college campuses that do not have early voting should insist that classes be canceled for part or all of election day so that they can vote.

The other innovation in Ohio that is worthy of note is the ability to register and obtain an absentee ballot at the same time. One of the challenges for a campaign’s field team is to get people to register and then remember to get them out to vote later. In Ohio this year, it is one-stop shopping for first time voters and that will increase turnout considerably.

Campaigns need to adjust their strategies to take account of the new election rules. In 2000, 2002, & 2004, the Republican Party unleashed a highly effective ground operation, aimed at identifying key voters and getting them to the polls. In critical swing districts, like Connecticut’s Second District, this push in the final 72 hours made the difference. In a state with early voting, a field operation has to take account of more than the final 72 hours. Ad buys, usually concentrated in the final week or two of a campaign, now need to reach voters a month before election day.

By virtually all accounts, the Obama campaign has the most effective ground operation any Democrat has mounted in years. This is especially important because a key part of his support comes from young people who are notorious for not voting in numbers equal to their share of the population. As we look at the polling in swing states, and worry about the Bradley effect, a good ground operation may make the difference.

Michael Sean Winters

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