New Brennan Report Looks at Early Voting

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[Image courtesy of brennancenter]

Last week, the Brennan Center released a new report on early voting entitled Early Voting: What Works. From the press release accompanying the report:

The five primary benefits from effective early voting programs identified in the report include:

  • + Reduced stress on the voting system on Election Day;
  • + Shorter lines on Election Day;
  • + Improved poll worker performance;
  • + Early identification and correction of registration errors and voting system glitches; and
  • + Greater access to voting and increased voter satisfaction.

Today, early voting laws vary substantially state-to-state and even across local jurisdictions within states. Although a number of states have already recognized these benefits and are adopting or expanding their early voting programs, voters in many states are still required to rearrange their schedules and wait in line on Election Day to participate in the political process.

Based on extensive research, the report recommends that all states and local jurisdictions implement the following early voting policies to expand the benefits of early voting nationwide:

  • 1. Begin early in person voting two weeks before Election Day;
  • 2. Provide weekend voting, including during the weekend before Election Day;
  • 3. Set minimum daily hours for early voting and provide extended hours outside standard business hours;
  • 4. Allow use of both private and public facilities;
  • 5. Distribute early voting places fairly and equitably;
  • 6. Update poll books daily; and
  • 7. Educate the electorate about early voting.

Brennan fellow Andrew Cohen makes a very interesting pair of observations in a commentary about the report, which he says is

a valuable addition to the conversation for at least two reasons. First, it sets forth in detail the precise benefits to the practice. It alleviates lines on Election Day — no surprise. It improves poll worker performance — surprise. It allows “early identification and correction of registration errors and voting system glitches” — two of the problems that animate so much of the debate today over voter identification rules. What the report really tells us, in other words, is that early voting can be a solution to the contentious political problems surrounding voting rights.

Second, the report lays bare some of the shibboleths that have surrounded the issue over the past few years. And here I will focus upon the inevitable response reluctant officials employ when confronted with a push for more “early voting.” It’s too expensive, they say. We can’t afford it. But the Brennan Center study concludes that there is no hard evidence (yet, anyway) that increasing early voting options will dramatically increase the costs of elections. And, as the report tells us, even those local officials who acknowledge the increase costs of early voting contend it’s worth it anyway to prevent Election Day chaos and inconvenience. From the Brennan Center report, on the costs of early in person voting (EIPV):

The potential for cost savings and other efficiencies are issues that deserve further study. Election officials were split about whether EIPV increased or decreased costs. For every election administrator who asserted with great certitude that EIPV saved money, there was one who maintained just the opposite. None of the officials interviewed had completed an assessment about the incremental costs and savings of EIPV.

Those that described EIPV as cost-efficient pointed to considerations such as the need for fewer voting machines or polling places on Election Day and the increased ratio of voters served per staff at each early voting location. For example, as retired Clark County election official Larry Lomax explained: “It’s so much more cost efficient based on the number of workers we hire. Our early voting sites get about 1,500 voters a day, the Election Day sites have about 300-350 per day.”

However, even those who highlight the potential for implementing EIPV in a manner that enhances cost efficiencies caution it should not be perceived as a quick-fix budget reduction measure. They emphasized that there must be substantial planning for EIPV, including the transition period to prepare for Election Day.

Notably, there was strong support for EIPV even among officials that reported increased costs. For instance, Maggie Toulouse Oliver of Bernalillo County, New Mexico, said that while EIPV “definitely doesn’t save money,” she still nonetheless supported “keep[ing] early voting days open as long as is practicable” to maximize the benefits to voters, including increased participation, and reduction of Election Day “bottlenecks.” Katherine C. Schultz, the county clerk for McHenry County, Illinois, said EIPV had increased costs, particularly for staffing. Yet, based on her positive experience with EIPV, she recommended that “[a]ny state that does not have early voting, they need to consider it.”

I find astounding the fact that “none of the officials interviewed had completed an assessment about the incremental costs and savings of EIPV.” It is long past time for such a review. We need to know what the costs and savings of EIPV are so we can properly evaluate them as a matter of politics, and law, and of civic responsibility. Early in person voting, it seems to me, is as much a part of our future as drive-through coffee shops are a part of our present. The question is how quickly we reach that future, how prudent we are in shaping it, and how many people ultimately benefit from an early voting system that encourages more Americans to cast a ballot. [emphasis added]

This report – and the call for a better analysis of the costs and benefits of early voting – is an important contribution to the field. Kudos to Brennan for their report!

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