Early Voting Trends Reveal How Elections Are Changing

In a opinion piece following last year’s historic midterm election, the Wall Street Journal explored emerging trends in early voting (EV) in an article titled, “Who Stole Election Day?” Their concern?

“Too many voters are making decisions when horse-race coverage dominates the news, attention to issues is limited, and key debates haven’t taken place.”

If you’re not obsessing over EV trends, should you be worried? Are EV trends actually changing elections to the point that campaigns have to evolve their strategies to accommodate new voting patterns? Is it a permanent shift or just a short term anomaly from the normal patterns of voting?

Simply put: the change is real, significant, and game changing.

EV data has revealed permanent changes in the way people approach voting that will require new tactics for campaigns preparing for Election Day. And there’s data to back it up.

In 2010, the early voting rate was 29%. That number has been steadily increasing for over two decades, beginning at just 9% in 1992. Recently, we’ve witnessed a 10% jump between the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections from 20% to 30%.

EV growth is spurred by increasing acceptance among voters and lawmakers of the idea that voters should be allowed to vote whenever they’ve made up their minds. Many states are slowly opening up their processes by adding new laws allowing unrestricted absentee voting (convenience voting), automatic renewals for regular absentee votes, and periods of EV or in-person absentee in physical polling locations.

States are producing sustained, elevated levels of early voting by legislating more flexible voter participation. Recent advances in voting technology like digital poll books, secure online voting for military voters overseas, and digital applications for voter registration and absentee balloting will only sustain the current trend of early voting growth.

The impact it’s having on Election Day itself may change the way you look at expanding early voting opportunities. In 2010, fourteen states had more than 40% of their ballots cast before Election Day. Thirty states cast more than 20% of ballots. In states like Oregon, every voter participated early and by mail.

For campaign professionals, this means that Election Day is now a sixty day effort of sustained, targeted turnout. Voting will take place at the same time as regular voter contact and advocacy messaging. It’s possible that as campaigns prepare simple phone banks, direct mail lists, or GOTV operations, that up to 50% of their target universes may need to be purged due to the fact they’ve voted. And a campaign’s ability to know who has voted may be dependent on local registrars being ahead of the curve on data processing and information sharing.

“Election Day has become merely the end point in a drawn-out voting period dominated in its early stages by news media preoccupation with questionable polls and predictions,” says Eliot Cutler, a 2010 candidate for Governor in Maine. As barriers are removed and EV increases in prominence, it’s possible it can have negative effects on the outcome of elections by encouraging voters to make their selections before campaigns have an opportunity to complete their arguments. Without sufficient time for debate and exposure of candidate positions’ public scrutiny, ideas won’t be vetted as thoroughly as in the past.

Beyond the obvious challenges for campaign professionals, there could be concerns about what these trends mean for the quality of American Democracy. In a period of intense political polarization, skyrocketing costs of elections and general apathy in the ability of government to provide solutions for our toughest problems, some see this as additional opportunities to trivialize the process of elections by encouraging campaigns to rush voters to judgment. They wonder: Could voting become an impulse buy like purchasing a trashy tabloid magazine or a tempting sweet while waiting in line at the supermarket?

But there is one truth we have trouble escaping: voters like convenience voting. I’ve voted by absentee most of my life and have voted by absentee in person…and liked it. Voting is our most fundamental of rights and government must be making every effort to find ways to keep voting an accessible and a pleasurable experience for everyone who wants to participate. With people working longer, commuting longer and further from home, voting isn’t as accessible as it once was.

It’s clear from the data we’ve seen that in the coming elections, EV trends will continue upward and that winning campaigns will be the ones that fully embrace it’s benefits and challenges. Predicting future trends mostly depends on understanding the patchwork of state laws that allow for EV that are rapidly changing; it’s clear that they’re only going to increase EV’s availability and acceptability. In the 2010 elections, 30% of all votes were cast before Election Day.

Will your campaign be ready for early voting in your election?