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Rod Watson: Early voting alone won’t increase New York’s turnout

Rod Watson

It should come as no surprise that a host of Democratic politicians rallied last weekend in New York City with good-government advocates to seek money for statewide early voting in the upcoming state budget.

It also is no surprise that while Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed such funding, it remains a hard sell among Republicans who still control the Senate. After all, conventional wisdom holds that early voting would disadvantage Republicans by drawing more Democrat-leaning voters to the polls.

What is surprising is that both sides may be wrong.

In a finding that seems counterintuitive, early voting has little or no impact on turnout and may, in fact, depress it, several researchers say.

For instance, a University of Wisconsin study of voting patterns in 2004 and 2008 concluded that "despite being the most popular election reform, early voting depresses net voter turnout." The authors noted that "this result upends the conventional view that anything the makes voting easier will raise turnout."

Similarly, when the Government Accountability Office reviewed the literature on voting reforms, it found that "most studies of early in-person voting reported no evidence of an effect on turnout or found decreases in turnout, while the remaining studies reported mixed evidence."

Why might early voting actually reduce turnout rather than increase it?

One theory is that spreading out voting over several days can kill the buzz around Election Day and the feeling that it is special, thus diluting the urge to be part of a massive civic event. There also may be a less focused "get out the vote" effort when voting takes place over a week or two. The University of Wisconsin study also found that campaign advertising tailed off in states with early voting.

Upstate ride-hailing, early voting among Cuomo priorities

All of that combined can reduce turnout among less committed voters.

In fact, Massachusetts Institute of Technology political scientist Adam Berinsky has argued that reforms like early voting or the national Motor Motor Act to make registration easier target the wrong kinds of impediments. He says if the goal is to make it easier for lower-income and underrepresented groups to vote – which is why Democrats generally favor such reforms and Republicans oppose them – such reforms can even exacerbate the voting gap.

That’s because the real cost of going to the polls is not so much logistical as it is becoming informed about, and engaged in, the political process, according to Berinsky. The typical reforms simply make it easier for those who already are engaged, while doing little to attract those who aren’t.

That doesn’t mean early voting should not be implemented in supposedly progressive New York, as it already has been in 37 other states.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, argues that early voting is not so much about increasing turnout as it is about making sure the ballot is accessible to all, including those whose work schedules, family obligations or emergency situations – such as a sick child – make it tough to get away on one prescribed day.

"There is no good reason to put people in that dilemma," Lerner said.

She’s right.

There also is no good reason to stand in long lines on one day when turnout can be spread more evenly over several days, or to risk a machine malfunction or weather incident on a single Election Day.

All of those factors argue for early voting and other reforms in Cuomo’s package, including some – like same-day registration –- that might actually boost turnout.

The governor is proposing that $7 million be included in the budget due by April 1 to implement early voting in the 12 days before Election Day, an effort Lerner said would be cost-neutral over time as expenses shift from Election Day to other days.

It’s worth a try. Just don’t expect it to miraculously hike turnout. In fact, Democrats shouldn’t consider it a panacea and Republicans shouldn’t fear it because the real key to getting more – and different – people to the polls is getting them more educated about, and engaged in, the political process. And you can’t do that by passing a law.


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