Absentee voting is for benefit of voters, not candidates

Posted Sept. 26, 2012, at 12:58 p.m.

Eliot Cutler, whose late surge in the 2010 gubernatorial election fell just short of sweeping him into the Blaine House, decries early “convenience” voting by absentee ballot as anti-democratic.

“I am hard-pressed to come up with a case to support voting six weeks before an election,” Cutler said.

The complaint makes sense coming from someone who may have lost an election because earlier, absentee votes went to his Democratic rival. But the voting process is not about the candidates. It’s about the voters — who often have to balance getting the kids to school on time, a full day’s work and other responsibilities with waiting in line to cast a ballot on Election Day.

The merits of early absentee ballot voting, like other Maine election practices being reviewed by a special five-member commision that must report its findings by Feb. 1, 2013, should be judged from the perspective of voters, not candidates or political campaign professionals.

Cutler reasonably notes that the practice gives state Democratic and Republican parties an organizational advantage over independents in “get out the vote” efforts, but that’s no reason to dismiss early voting as anti-democratic.

In fact, early voting promotes democracy because it allows voters to focus on issues and character before campaigns veer into the late, manipulative “win-at-all-costs” mode in which late-race competition obscures the fact that voters should see their responsibility as electing the person best suited to govern. It also reduces the potential impact of last-minute mailings or negative ad blitzes funded by outside groups for whom Maine represents little more than a pushpin on a national strategy map.

To date, scant evidence exists to indicate any negative impact of early absentee balloting on the integrity of Maine’s electoral process. The biggest adverse repercussion of early absentee voting identified to date involves the strain it places on poll workers in Maine’s larger municipalities. The commission studying Maine’s election system should explore options to mitigate the way absentee balloting taps municipal resources.

At least one study, “Early Voting and Turnout” by Paul Gronke, Eva Galanes-Rosenbaum and Peter A. Miller of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Portland, Ore., shows that early voting does not boost turnout significantly — unless coupled with same-day voter registration. Early voters told Gronke, Galanes-Rosenbaum and Miller that they would have voted on Election Day if the advance option was not available, and the researchers found no strong evidence that the availability of early voting encouraged people who otherwise would not have cast a ballot to do so.

However, the same study concluded that the benefits of early voting include “ballot counting is more accurate, it can save administrative costs and headaches, and voters express a high level of satisfaction with the system.”

The value of advance absentee ballot voting rests more with keeping the power of democracy in voters’ hands. As super-PAC money and national agendas exert more and more influence over Maine’s elections, early absentee balloting allows voters to maintain some control over the electoral process.

“People cast their ballot when they are ready to do so,” Michael McDonald, a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., who studies early voting, told Bloomberg News.

That level of independence benefits democracy.

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