Jessica Leval and Jennifer Marsico, Research Assistants, AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project
(This piece originally appeared in online version of The American Magazine on October 16, 2008)
October 16, 2008
Over the past three decades, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of absentee and early voters. Election Day (November 4) is still a few weeks away, but millions of Americans have already voted as absentee or "early" voters. In certain states--including Virginia, Idaho, Iowa, and Georgia--early voting began in mid-September.
All told, 36 states have some form of "convenience voting" in place. Over the past three decades, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of absentee and early voters: these voters represented roughly 15 percent of the overall election turnout in 2000 and 20 percent in 2004, compared to only 5 percent in 1980. In practical terms, the rise of convenience voting means that the weeks prior to Election Day have become increasingly important.
In the past, there have been movements in the United States to change Election Day to a weekend or to make it a federal holiday. These movements ultimately failed, but many states have taken steps to improve the ease of voting. For example, voters in Columbus, Georgia, have access to a "Vote and Vax" program, which allows them to cast their ballots and receive flu shots for a fee of $23. In Travis County, Texas, early voters may cast their ballots while going to the gym. In Columbus, Ohio, they may do so while visiting the veterans memorial downtown. Alaska has "absentee voting stations" located in major airports throughout the state, along with 40 regional election offices.
In some parts of the country, voters do not even have to leave their cars to cast ballots. Travis County, Texas, is offering "curbside voting" for voters who cannot walk or stand in line for extended periods of time--all that is necessary is a phone call in advance, and an election official will bring a ballot to a voter’s car outside the polling place. On October 20, Orange County, California, will be offering drive-thru electronic voting. Registered voters will be able to wait in one of six drive-thru lines outside the county registrar’s office and use an electronic voting machine to cast their votes.
Even Oregon--a state that votes entirely by mail--is trying to make voting more convenient. Since many residents scramble to submit ballots at the last minute, drop boxes have been placed around the state in order to cut down on Election Day traffic. These drop boxes can be found in places like McDonald’s, the public library, and the Salvation Army.
Will the introduction of such new and unusual polling stations affect voting behavior? Stanford researchers Jonah Berger, Marc Meredith, and S. Christian Wheeler have published a paper arguing that polling locations can actually prime voters’ decisions in the booth. For instance, when voting in a school, voters may weigh educational matters more heavily than they would if they were voting in an airport or a recreational center.
Most early votes tend to be cast during the week before the election, so we do not yet know what the numbers will be for 2008. But it is highly possible that the different forms of convenience voting will prove helpful in increasing overall voter turnout. Indeed, this election could mark a turning point, after which convenience voting becomes increasingly widespread.
Jessica Leval can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jennifer Marsico can be reached at email@example.com.
Viewpoint is an occasional feature analyzing various election reform issues.