In 2010, for the first time in my life, I was away from home when Election Day rolled around. Election Day is a personal holiday for me; and when it happens I really enjoy doing odd-for-me things like getting up really early and waiting in line with strangers outside a cold elementary school. I was kind of bummed out to miss the experience in 2010, but duty called. I spent Election Day training people how to use a new piece of software down in Delaware, discreetly following returns on my Blackberry.
I still managed to vote by absentee ballot, thankfully. I applied well in advance, as soon as I realized my business trip would overlap with Election Day, and my ballot arrived in the mail in mid-October. I filled it out at the kitchen table and sent it back in the next day.
When I was done I thought: That worked really well. Voting should always be this easy.
Of course, in Connecticut, it isn’t always. I was only able to get an absentee ballot because I was going to be away on Election Day, unable to get to my polling place. Currently, only those “who are unable to appear at the polling place on the day of election because of absence from the city or town of which they are inhabitants or because of sickness, or physical disability or because the tenets of their religion forbid secular activity” and members of the armed services (Connecticut Constitution, Article VI, sec. 7-8) are eligible for absentee ballots. As I discovered, the absentee ballot application has boxes to check off for each of these reasons; anyone applying must state his or her excuse. There is a penalty for lying; falsifying statements on the absentee ballot application is a class D felony, and could land offenders in jail for at least a year.
A potential amendment to the state constitution passed this week by the Government Administration and Elections committee would change all this. The actual text of the amendment would replace the language above with something much less stringent, allowing the legislature to make provisions for any voter not appearing in person at the polls to vote; in practice this would open the door to “no-excuse” (i.e., no excuse needed) absentee ballots and early voting.
This amendment is long overdue. A majority of states now allow early voting in either designated polling places or by mail (absentee ballots). In the 2008 presidential election, early voters made up a full 30% of the electorate, a number that has grown sharply since a mere 4% reported voting early in 1972. There are many reasons to make the change, but the major one is that the more convenient it is to vote, the more likely it will be that people actually will. Getting to the polls on Election Day and dealing with the crowds isn’t easy for many people, and a vote-by-mail or in-person early voting option makes a lot of sense for them.
Another good reason to scrap the barriers to absentee/early voting is that, in high-turnout elections, the stress on town clerks and elections officials would be reduced. Think about the mess in Bridgeport last year; easier ways for people to vote before Election Day would help to lessen the impact of problems such as not having enough ballots, or machines breaking down.
Opponents of early voting suggest that there is a greater potential for fraud, but no evidence exists to suggest that early voting fraud is a widespread problem. Other opponents argue that allowing early or no-excuse absentee voting can lead to voters who are less well-informed, as candidates shift money and resources elsewhere, but this is merely a hypothesis with little basis in fact. Voters who want to find out about candidates are easily able to do so. Another argument suggests that get-out-the-vote efforts are hampered by early voting, or disappear altogether where early voting happens. There may be some merit to this argument at the current time, but parties and campaigns are only just now starting to figure out how to re-tool their get-out-the-vote efforts to include early voters.
Connecticut should join the majority of other states and allow early voting to happen. Hopefully the legislature will approve the proposed amendment by a large enough margin for it to go to the voters in 2012 (if not, there’s always 2014 should it be approved again by the next legislature). I love Election Day still, but I’m more than willing to make it a little less all-important in order for voting to become more accessible to everyone.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner of Connecticut Local Politics. She lives in Enfield with her wife, and cats.