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The promise and peril of early voting

37 minutes

Super Tuesday is this week, but voters in many states have already cast their ballots for races happening this week and throughout the rest of the primary season. From Florida to Pennsylvania, states are expanding access to early and absentee voting to give people more options to make their voices heard in our democracy.

Sounds great, right? However, early voting is not without its problems for candidates, election officials, and even voters. Daniel Smith, one of the country’s leading elections experts, joins us this week for a look at the pros and cons of early voting, and how it might improve voter turnout among young people specifically.

Smith is Professor and Chair of Political Science at the University of Florida and President of ElectionSmith, Inc. He is a nationally-recognized expert on direct democracy, campaign finance, and voting rights in the American states. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin – Madison  and his B.A. in History from Penn State.

Stay tuned to the end of the episode for more information about another great higher ed podcast, Ways & Means from the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. The show’s fifth season launched Feb. 19 and covers issues in politics and policy ahead of the 2020 election.

Additional Information

Dan’s website: ElectionSmith

Ways & Means podcast

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Episode Credits

This episode was recorded at WPSU’s studios and engineered by Andy Grant. It was edited by Mark Stitzer and reviewed by Emily Reddy. Additional support from Democracy Works interns Nicole Gresen and Stephanie Krane.

Interview Highlights [5:40] What is early voting?

There are a lot of different definitions of early voting. The one that Pennsylvania still does not have, and about a dozen states don’t have any form of this, is allowing voters to come in before election day to some type of polling location. It can be at the county level, multiple locations, it might just be the county seat. It allows you to come in, you don’t have to request an absentee ballot, and you prove your identity one way or the other, and are able to vote a regular ballot. The ballot looks just like a ballot you would do on election day in your own local precinct. Those windows might be as much as a month before Election Day.

[7:55] How do states decide to adopt early voting?

It could be just the culture that you have the idea that let’s make voting easier, and we’re going to see about making it more convenient for voters so they don’t have to come on that first Tuesday after the first Monday in November and extend the absentee ballot or make it an all-mail ballot election. Others there’s certainly a political game going on, and it’s often on partisan lines, where Democrats generally want to expand the electorate, and make it more easy to vote. One way to do that is to give people more opportunities to turn out to vote, either in person or by getting ’em an absentee ballot and mailing it in.

[9:38] What do we know about people who vote early?

Early in-person voting is certainly geared to people who can’t necessarily come out to vote easily on a Tuesday. And so what we have seen is a demographic on those early voting days that isn’t necessarily representative of the overall electorate. It happens to be more people of color, more women, younger voters are often using early in-person voting.

Early in-person voting is different from absentee voting, which is typically seen most among  older people, whiter people, more partisans, people who have already made up their decision on how to vote. They don’t need to wait for an eleventh hour surprise, they’re gonna vote a Republican or Democratic ticket.

[18:16] What happened in the early voting program the was piloted at several colleges in Florida?

It was fascinating to see  the excitement where these students were first kind of curious about the opportunity. And then you started to see the drives of get out the vote efforts by different coalitions. The University of Florida has a lot of Democrats as well as Republicans. And so, it was utilized by both of the political parties at the local level. The students are very energized and organized relative to a lot of other universities so I’m not surprised that we had the high turnout. And I can tell you that if the supervisor of election wanted to eliminate this or the administration wanted to eliminate it, there would be a huge backlash.

[19:22] What will voter turnout look like in November’s election?

I think it’s really going to hinge a lot on who the Democratic nominee is. The Democrats certainly have the never-Trumpers who are going to vote for a box of rocks over the incumbent. They’re going to come out regardless. But there are a lot of other folks who are not terribly excited about a potential Democratic candidate. And if you don’t have that excitement and that enthusiasm, we know that it is going to play with respect to younger voters. If they can’t get behind the Democratic candidate, if President Trump does some things that are going to turn off some moderate Republicans, who really don’t like what he’s doing but are going to hold their nose and come out any way, he could still turn them off. They’re not going to come out and vote for the Democratic nominee.

[21:52] Will we see more states adopt early voting between now and November?

I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some more legal challenges. Is Pennsylvania going to adopt early in-person voting this cycle? No. But New York did last election cycle. And they had some issues rolling it out, but I think it takes a, a bit of time. But again, New York’s not a competitive state. There’s not going to be a lot of attention. There’s not going to be a lot of money spent there in the presidential election. Turnout is going to be probably a lot lower  just because people on either side know that their vote is probably not going to be decisive. And there’s a lot of literature suggesting that that’s one of the things that drives people whether or not that the margins are going to turn out to vote.

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