Not Just ID Anymore: Early Voting Divides Parties

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[Image courtesy of mzube]

As we move through the primary season and general elections in 2014 – and 2016 – come into sharper focus, the two major parties are preparing to do battle again about election laws. This time, however, it’s not about voter ID but whether and how to open the polls to voters before Election Day. The Associated Press has more:

Election Day is approaching, and you’ve made up your mind. There’s no need to wait. In many states, you now can vote early.

Yet what’s convenient to you is increasingly an opportunity for political gamesmanship to the candidates on the ballot.

In key swing states, Democrats and Republicans are battling this year to gain even the slightest electoral advantages by tinkering with the times, dates and places where people can vote early. Their sights are set not only on this year’s gubernatorial and congressional campaigns, but on an even bigger prize: control of the White House after the 2016 elections.

Just like with ID, partisan legislative control is a major predictor of activity in the states:

Republican-controlled legislatures in Ohio, Missouri, North Carolina and Wisconsin all have taken recent steps to curtail early voting by limiting the days on which it’s available.

Meanwhile, Democratic-led legislatures have passed measures expanding early voting or instant registration in Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts and Minnesota. And Democratic activists in Missouri are backing an initiative petition that could create one of the nation’s most expansive early voting systems.

But here’s the thing – all of this activity is predicated on an assumption that may not be true:

“For whatever reason, both sides seem to believe that increased early voting will help Democrats and hurt Republicans,” said David Kimball, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who studies voting.

New research suggests that those partisan assumptions about early voting may not be true. Yet the perception is deeply grounded because of President Barack Obama’s pioneering use of early voting to drive a greater number of Democrats to the polls in his victories in 2008 and 2012 …

Early voting generally increases voter turnout by 2-4 percent, which is statistically significant, said Paul Gronke, director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.

Some of the assumptions about early voting have been challenged by recent research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Professors there found that early voting that diminishes the publicity surrounding the actual election day can hurt turnout, and ultimately aid Republicans.

There are, to be sure, important issues involved in early voting – convenience for voters, line management and administration issues for election officials and cost for all concerned – but these aspects risk getting lost in the overall fight to control Election Day.

That hasn’t stopped legislatures from pushing early voting to the top of the list (pro or con) in many states. The problem, of course, is that these changes raise the possibility of confusion for voters at the polls – especially as election-year lawsuits and other controversies delay or limit certain new laws.

The AP piece quotes an ACLU spokesperson in Ohio as saying that setting voting times “has become kind of a partisan game”; here’s hoping that voters don’t end up losing.

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