With 99 days to go, Donald J Trump and Hillary Clinton are past their conventions stumping hard for every vote. And they are especially anxious to claim the millions of Americans NOT planning to go to the polls on election day, a significant number of them from Massachusetts. These are the prized early voters. Committed voters, many of them Super voters like me, who cast a ballot in every election whether it’s for school committee or the president. But this year, for the first time Bay State voters will be able to go to the polls before Tuesday, November 8th.
Formally approved just a week ago the new early voting law requires Massachusetts towns to provide space and opportunity for those who want ready convenience and need more access to the ballot box. Instead of having only one chance to vote, registered voters have the ten days leading up to election day to send in a ballot or vote in person.
I’m all about anything that makes voting easier and gets more people to the polls. And there is evidence that early voting pumps up motivated voters; it’s been an extremely effective tool in getting made- up -their- minds voters to the polls. Which is exactly why campaigns eagerly court them. Early voters in Florida and Ohio turned out in big numbers in 2008 and helped tip the election for then Senator Barack Obama.
But, I’ve been surprised to learn that for all of its advantages, early voting has a hidden downside. A study reported in the American Journal of Political Science revealed that-- by itself --early voting can actually decrease overall voter turnout. What’s more, the percentage of early voters goes down each day it’s offered. The problem seems to go away when states offer both early voting AND registration at one location or at the same time, as in same day or election day registration. Yet this simplest of ways to encourage voters is the one most states -including Massachusetts--are reluctant or outright refused to support. At least we do have online registration, and now early voting here.
Massachusetts towns and cities must have at least one early voting location--supporters hope some cities will go beyond regular business hours and include evening and weekend hours.
Too many people died so I could have voting rights, so I consider standing in line on Election day and waiting my turn a kind of spiritual homage to them. But, I’m going to talk up the early voting option to everybody I know because I want to do what I can to boost voter turnout. “Vote early and often,” notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone urged his bought and paid for voters. Wouldn’t he be surprised to know that part of his unlawful election day mantra is now a powerful tool for election reform.