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The End Of Election Day

This column was written by Andrew Ferguson



At least you have to give John Fortier credit for trying. Last week, while every other political scientist and scandal-sniffing, goo-goo reformer was lamenting run-of-the-mill Election-Day difficulties — long lines, hiccuppy voting machines, bullying and incompetent poll workers — Fortier was trying to draw attention to a problem that is far more consequential, and far more radical: Election Day itself is about to disappear.

Fortier is a political scientist with the American Enterprise Institute. A few weeks ago he published a new book, "Absentee and Early Voting: Trends, Promises, and Perils." The book's thesis is as follows: Thanks to such recent election reforms as early voting, vote-by-mail, and unrestricted access to absentee ballots — together known as "convenience voting" — "our nation is steadily moving away from voting on Election Day." Early estimates suggest that one in four votes this year was cast before November 7. The percentage has increased with every national election since 1980.

Voting by mail is now mandatory in Oregon, and nearly half of California voters cast their ballots absentee; in Washington State the figure hovers around 70 percent. Thirty years ago every state required voters to certify an excuse for obtaining an absentee ballot — illness, business travel, or other obligations, like school, that would place the voter out of state on Election Day. Nearly half the states now have "no-excuses" absentee voting, and all but twelve have dropped the once-universal requirement that absentee ballots be notarized or witnessed by a third party. Other states are expanding a category called "permanent absentee voter," a designation once reserved for shut-ins and the permanently disabled, who automatically received an absentee ballot every election year; now the category includes anybody who claims it.

Experiments in Internet voting are underway in several localities. As reformers busily spread their voting reforms from one state to the next, it's not hard to imagine a time in the not-too-distant future when what we now call Election Day, the day when voters vote, will merely signify the day when voters finally stop voting. Precinct polling places will be a quaint memory.

Many fine, morally upright, patriotic Americans might welcome the demise of Election Day, for understandable reasons. Anyone who watched the grinding TV coverage on Election Night, with political analysts pronouncing extemporaneously on the election's larger meaning — the unspeakable lecturing the impressionable about the unknowable — will be happy to have any excuse to force them to, please God, stop talking, and if we have to eliminate Election Day for that to happen, then okay. But as Fortier notes, the radical change in the way Americans vote has been undertaken for motives that are much more arguable. Worse, the change is being accomplished without much debate or reflection about its consequences, even though these touch on elemental questions of citizenship and civic obligation.

Reformers are contradictory people, forever unsettled and dissatisfied with the status quo and, at the same time, imperturbably complacent about their ability to fix it. They hate to hear that a reform has unintended consequences, and they especially hate to hear that the reform not only doesn't work but might actually do the opposite of what it is supposed to do.

So it is with convenience voting. Early voting and the other reforms were designed for two explicit purposes: The first was to increase voter turnout, which reformers always believe is too low, no matter how high it is; the second was to make the franchise more accessible to habitual nonvoters, and thus make the voting electorate more representative of the voting-age population as a whole.

Neither of these objects has been achieved.

When Oregon reformers, for instance, claimed that mail-in voting had vastly increased turnout there, Curtis Gans of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate pointed out that this wasn't so: In fact, the first mail-in election, the 2000 presidential primary in Oregon, had the lowest turnout for any Oregon presidential primary. "Oregon has always had turnout levels between nine and ten percentage points higher than the national average," Gans wrote recently. "Mail voting has done nothing to change this situation."

Elsewhere, early voting and no-excuse absentee voting have had worse than no effect; they actually seem to lower turnout. There are various explanations why. In states with extended voting periods, for example, each political party spread its mobilization efforts over several weeks rather than concentrating them in a single day, diminishing their impact and rousting fewer voters to the polls. "In years of increased national turnout," Gans found, "no-excuse absentee states experienced lesser increases. In years of declines, no-excuse absentee states experienced greater decline."

And how about the chronic non-voters? Their response to convenience voting has been admirably dissected by Adam Berinsky, a political scientist at MIT. "Both proponents and opponents of electoral reforms agree," he wrote, "that these reforms should increase the demographic representativeness of the electorate by reducing the direct costs of voting, thereby increasing turnout among less-privileged groups." But both proponents and opponents were wrong. Early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, vote-by-mail — none has worked to "stimulate the unengaged voter." To the extent they've had any effect at all, the reforms have only stimulated voters who were already inclined to vote, by marginally increasing the convenience of doing what they were probably going to do anyway. Indeed, Berinsky found that convenience voters are better educated and have higher incomes than the average voter.

Which explains why the reforms spread and flourish, even though no data support them and most observers agree they greatly increase the danger of vote fraud. Convenience voting is popular because it's convenient — of course — but the convenience is of a kind that particularly suits the needs of ... people like the reformers. "These new procedures," Gans told me, "are for lazy middle-class and affluent people who would normally vote anyway but just want to make it easier on themselves."

Every age gets the reformers it deserves, and the sad irony is that the new voting reforms undo a host of reforms advocated by the do-gooders of a century ago, whose aspirations reached for something grander than mere ease and convenience. American voting from the first was a social affair — raucous sometimes, too, with barrels of whiskey often set out in town squares to encourage the celebratory mood of Election Day.

More often than not, before the Civil War, voters declared their votes publicly and vocally, in front of their neighbors. But the sociability and public nature of voting made it susceptible to corrupting influences, peer pressure in particular. With the growth of concentrated urban populations, easily exploited by Tammany Hall and other political machines, progressive reformers reconceived voting as the crowning ritual of the civic religion. Voting was still a communal act, undertaken in view of the neighbors. But now it was draped with legal protections designed to reinforce its sacralized status. Blue laws banned the sale of liquor on Election Day. The secret ballot became universal, cast in voting booths hung with curtains to guarantee privacy. And the voting booths were placed in polling places that were themselves surrounded by a nonpartisan cordon sanitaire: All politicking was banned within fifty or a hundred feet of it, so the ideally disinterested voter could enter into the space cleansed of petty partisanship, accompanied only by his conscience and good judgment.

The new arrangement, coalescing over a generation or two, was earnest and high-minded, perhaps the summit of Progressive party poopery. As understood by William Allen White, Woodrow Wilson, and other professional improvers, it was the reform equivalent of a Swiss Army knife, performing several tasks at once — "the key to the whole problem of the restoration of popular government in this country," in Wilson's typically humid description. Not only would it frustrate the dark workings of the political machines, it would help create a "New Citizen," ennobled by his freedom even as he exercised it.

Who can say whether this grand ambition was achieved? In some respects, the earlier reforms were undeniably successful. I well remember — if you don't mind a personal note — my own first glimpse of a polling place, in the middle 1960s, when my second-grade classmates and I were ushered into our school gymnasium to watch in hushed silence as lines of grown-ups waited their turn to enter the curtained booths, their overcoats heavy and their hats still dusted with snow, their faces inscrutable and solemn. The room was so quiet you could hear the rumble of the boiler room beneath us. It was as if we had entered a temple — which was the whole idea.

Well, that's all yesterday, or it will be soon. We're having no more of this New Citizen stuff nowadays. Voting will be thoroughly privatized. For this new age of voting reform advances a more contemporary aspiration: to perform every civic obligation individually whenever it suits each of us, in the manner that conforms to our own personal preferences, ideally while wearing pajamas.
By Andrew Ferguson
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