Some readers may be familiar with a game called “punch bug,” in which passengers taking a car trip punch each other in the arm based upon who first sights a Volkswagen Beetle. According to Wikipedia, most references concerning the game “originate from unofficial sources and personal accounts from players,” but “estimates suggest that it has existed since the 1960s.” Like the United States of America itself, however, the game may actually have originated in England. I know. I was there.
In the early to middle 1960’s I lived just outside London in an American government housing area built for military “dependents” – spouses and children – and rode a motor coach to school. (England had no yellow school buses, as English children either walked to local schools or took public transportation. The U. S. government contracted for the equivalent of tour buses to take American children to the school on base.) Upon sighting a wood-paneled Mini Countryman Woodie Wagon, the first person to spot the vehicle would yell “beaver!” (I don’t why that particular name) and would be entitled to slug his seat-mate.
Tired of being punched more than one time too many, my good friend John decided that he’d accumulate a mass of “beavers” by going home and flipping back and forth among the pages of a toy catalog picturing a Woodie Wagon, counting each “sighting” of the car’s picture separately and thereby accumulating a huge number of arm punches that he could use at will when he needed them. Such, it seems to me, is the equivalent of today’s penchant for early voting.
As practiced in Illinois and a number of other states around the nation, early voting lets a voter who doesn’t want to wait for Election Day to cast a vote at the polling place starting some specified time in advance of the election, usually several weeks. At least in Illinois no special reason is needed to vote early, although as the President of the United States recently discovered while voting early during a recent fundraising trip to Chicago, Illinois does require a photo ID to do so. It’s certainly convenient for those who, say, work as election judges outside their home precinct or are out of town on Election Day, and I have used it myself for the same reasons. But it’s a bad idea for the future of a democratic republic because it takes us further and further away from a democratic republic and closer and closer to mob rule.
Elections are intended to express the political will of the people, but we don’t live in a direct democracy. Instead (at least in theory) we have a representative government in which eligible voters vote to elect legislators, executives, and in some case judges who will make, enforce, and interpret the law. Except for federal judges (who are appointed and have lifetime tenure during “good behavior”), these officials generally have fixed terms and in some cases are term-limited (the U. S. President, for example, and governors of some states, although not U. S. Representatives or Senators). Implicitly recognizing the truth of Lord Acton’s famous dictum that power tends to corrupt and that absolute power corrupts absolutely, the framers of the U. S. Constitution set up this system to divide power at the federal level as much as possible and the states have generally followed suit.
Early voting threatens this system of representative democracy because it multiplies the opportunities for mischief and unnecessarily entangles the political process with the judicial process. It imposes a greater burden on election officials, who must monitor the polls for the duration of the early voting period instead of just on Election Day. It increases the opportunity for tampering with ballots, because they are held for a longer time. It lets election officials tally votes on an ongoing basis, thereby letting candidates and parties know how many more votes they must gather to win on Election Day. It permits a smaller number of partisan organizers, working over a longer time, to mobilize more unmotivated (and by definition less informed) voters and drag them to the polls. And although the percentage is undoubtedly small, it even permits the dead to vote legally, because someone who votes early could well have expired by Election Day. (In a Huffington Post piece otherwise generally in favor of early voting, Huffington’s Jennifer Bendery actually quotes a vote in Cleveland saying that “If I die tomorrow, at least my vote counts today.”)
The biggest problem with early voting, however, is that it unnecessarily makes elections even messier than they already are by increasing the odds that the courts – the least representative branch of government – and not the people will decide elections. “Candidates Make Last Pleas As Legal Skirmishes Begin,” The New York Times reported on November 5, 2012, the day before this year’s presidential election. Not waiting for a potential Bush v. Gore outcome as in the year 2000, the Times reports, the Florida State Democratic Party had already filed a lawsuit on Sunday morning, November 4, 2012, to extend “early voting” (which was scheduled to expire on Saturday, November 3) through Tuesday, November 5 – Election Day itself – in Broward County. In the words of Rick Hasen of ElectionLawBlog.org, as quoted in The Huffington Post, “Florida is doing whatever it can to be the next Florida.”
“Early voting is crucially important to working people, many of whom cannot take time off from work on a Tuesday to wait in line and cast a ballot at the polling place,” argues Huffington, while adding helpfully that “Many black churches also use the Sunday before Election Day to take their congregations to the polls to vote early, a practice that is especially important to parishioners lacking transportation.” But state and local laws generally require that employers give employees time off to vote, most polling places (especially in urban areas) are located within an easy walk from home, and putting aside the supposedly prevailing separation of church and state under the Constitution, Huffington offers no reason to believe that church buses don’t run as well on Tuesdays as on Sundays.
No, the real reason that politicians like early voting and that the people should oppose it is that’s it’s a form of cheating at the ballot box, just like my childhood friend John cheated at the predecessor of “punch bug.” When all that counts is how many people a politician can drag to the polls if the people keep them open long enough for that politician to win, then the people and the republic will have lost.