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Ballots Cast Before Election Day Expected to Increase as Early Voting Trend Continues

Posted on September 30, 2010

Early voting turnout stands to rival that of Election Day

Requirements and dates vary by state – view them here

WASHINGTON- The recent trend toward early voting is expected to continue this year as states offer more options for casting ballots prior to Election Day. Thirty-two states will offer in-person early voting this year, an increase from 9 in 1998 according to the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College.

Early voting—often defined as casting a ballot in person or by mail before Election Day—has steadily increased over the past decade. The number of ballots cast early reached 30.3 percent in 2008, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s (EAC) 2008 Election Administration and Voting Survey, an increase of roughly 10 percent over 2006.

In some states, early voting has become so commonplace that it exceeds Election Day turnout. Nevada, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas reported early voter turnout rates of more than 50 percent during the 2008 presidential election. Washington state reported that nearly 90 percent of votes were cast early through absentee ballot.

“Early voting was introduced to increase voter turnout by making voting more convenient,” said EAC Chair Donetta Davidson, a former Colorado elections director and secretary of state. “It has become as integral to the electoral process as Election Day itself.”

Historically, voters needed to provide a reason to vote an absentee ballot, a justification often connected to religion, travel or health. But in the early 1990s, states started allowing voters to cast ballots early in person or by mail without providing a reason.

“One reason Colorado adopted early voting was to reduce the long lines that formed on Election Day because of the time it took to vote our lengthy ballots,” said Davidson. “Voting was taking up to 20 minutes for each person. Early voting was an ideal solution.”

Indeed, many election officials see benefits in the rise of early voting. “Early voting removes the make-or-break pressure that has long defined Election Day,” said EAC Executive Director Thomas Wilkey, a former local and state elections director of New York. “When you extend the voting period, election officials and poll workers are better equipped to manage lines, assist voters and respond to emergencies on Election Day.”

This has proven true for Harris County, Texas, which recently lost all of its voting machines in a warehouse fire. They managed to replace their machines quickly in part because the number they need has steadily declined as the percentage of early voters has increased.

Establishing and running an early voting program can be cost prohibitive, however, particularly when governments are forced to do more with less. America’s decentralized election system allows states to adopt voting procedures that are most beneficial to voters and taxpayers, and that may or may not include early voting. For instance, states that don’t have long ballots or shortages of poll workers, voting equipment, or technical support may be less likely to benefit from early voting.

So far, early voting has not led to increases in voter turnout. Nor has it had a notable effect on the speed with which election results are reported. As for the potential for voters’ remorse with casting a ballot early, Davidson believes most regrets still take place after Election Day—not before it. “If you haven’t made up your mind during the early voting period, you can always wait until Election Day to cast your vote.”

The early voting season starts in late September, reaching its peak in mid to late October. State-by-state data on early voting for recent federal elections is available at www.eac.gov/research.

EAC is an independent commission created by the Help America Vote Act. EAC serves as a national clearinghouse and resource of information regarding election administration. It is charged with administering payments to states and developing guidance to meet HAVA requirements, adopting voluntary voting system guidelines, and accrediting voting system test laboratories and certifying voting equipment. It is also charged with developing and maintaining a national mail voter registration form. The three EAC commissioners are Donetta Davidson, chair; Gracia Hillman; and Gineen Bresso. There is one vacancy on the commission.