Thousands of Americans are already casting their votes in the 2012 elections through a variety of vote-by-mail and in-person balloting that allows citizens to cast their votes well in advance of November 6. From military personnel posted overseas to absentee voters, these early voting opportunities give voters the opportunity to make their voices heard even when they can’t stand in line on Election Day. However, there are pitfalls in the process.
Expert Michael McDonald says that while a great deal of attention has been focused on voter fraud, the untold story is that during the last presidential election, some 400,000 absentee ballots were discarded as improperly submitted. How can early voters make sure their voices are heard? What effect will absentee and other early voting programs have in this election year? On September 26, McDonald took your questions and comments in a live web chat moderated by Vivyan Tran of POLITICO.
12:30 Vivyan Tran: Welcome everyone, let's get started.
12:30 Michael McDonald: Early voting was 30% of all votes cast in the 2008 election. My expectation is that 35% of all votes in 2012 will be cast prior to Election Day. In some states, the volume will be much higher. In the battleground state of CO, about 85% of the votes will be cast early; 70% in FL; and 45% in Ohio.
What does it all mean? Hopefully I will be able to answer that question in today's chat!
12:30 Comment from JMC: At what point do you think that the in person early voters become less partisan types eager to cast their vote and more "regular folks" who would be more swayed by debate performances, TV ads, and the like?
12:30 Comment from Jason: 400,000 absentee ballots were discarded in 2008? How?
12:30 Michael McDonald: Reasons why election officials reject mail ballots: unsigned, envelope not sealed, multiple ballots in one envelope, etc. 400K rejected in 2008 does not include the higher rate of spoiled ballots that typically occur with paper mail ballots compared to electronic recording devices used in polling places. Moral: make sure you follow closely the proper procedures to cast your mail ballot!
12:31 Michael McDonald: @JMC: If they are going to vote early, most people wait until the week prior to the election. Those voting now have already made up their minds. But, the polls indicate many people have already done so, so maybe we see more early voting in 2012 as a consequence.
12:31 Comment from User: It was my understanding that absentee ballots are never counted unless the race is incredibly close in a particular state? Is that true - or do the rules for that vary by state?
12:32 Michael McDonald: No, all early votes are counted. What may not be counted, depending on state law and if the election is close enough for them to matter, are provisional ballots.
12:33 Comment from Damion: The blurb here says 400,000 early votes were discarded. Shouldn't the board of elections be reprimanded for that? Who was at fault and what consequences were there?
12:33: Michael McDonald: No, these are ballots "discarded" because people did not follow proper procedures and they must be rejected by law.
12:33 Comment from Shirley: Can you Facebook your vote in?
12:34 Michael McDonald: No. However, election officials are transmitting ballots electronically to overseas citizens and military voters. Voters must print the ballot, fill it out, sign it, scan it, and return. There are ways for these voters to verify that their ballot was received.
12:35 Comment from Karen K: What kind of impact could these discards have on the 2012 election?
12:36 Michael McDonald: Difficult to say. More Republicans vote by mail (excluding all mail ballot states). But, we don't know much about those who fail to follow the procedures. They might be less educated or elderly, and thus might counter the overall trend we see in mail balloting. Who knows?
12:37 Comment from User: This is the first I've heard of so many early votes getting discarded. Is this an issue people are addressing in a serious way?
12:38 Michael McDonald: Unfortunately, we are too focused on issues like voter fraud, which are low occurrence events, when there are many more important ways in which votes are lost in the system. Hopefully we can get the message out so fewer people disenfranchise themselves.
12:39 Comment from Anonymous: What do we know so far about absentee votes for 2012? Can we tell who they're leaning toward in specific states and how?
12:40 Michael McDonald: It's a little early :) yet. One of the major changes from 2008 is that the overseas civilian ballots -- a population that leans D -- was sent ballots much earlier this year than in 2008. We'll get a much better sense of the state of play in the two weeks prior to the election.
12:41 Michael McDonald: That said, the number of absentee ballot requests is running about the same as in 2008, if not a little higher, suggesting that the early vote will indeed be higher than in 2008, and perhaps that overall turnout will be on par with 2008, too.
12:41 Comment from Leslie: So, how can I ensure my early ballot is counted? There are so many rules and regulations, I'm never sure I've brought/filled out the paperwork.
12:42 Michael McDonald: Many states and localities allow people to check on-line the status of their ballot. Do a search for your local election official's webpage to see if that is available to you.
12:42 Comment from Daryyl: Can you define provisional ballots then?
12:44 Michael McDonald: Provisional ballots are required under federal law to allow people to vote if there is a problem with their voter registration. Election officials work after the election to resolve the situation.
If you vote in-person early, then you can resolve provisional ballot situations much sooner, which is good.
12:45 Michael McDonald: Some states use provisional ballots for other purposes: e.g., for a person who does not have the required id or to manage a change in voter registration address. One of the untold stories of this cycle is that FL will manage change of reg. address through provisional ballots. OH does so, and 200K provisionals were cast in 2008. Expect 300K in FL, which may mean we will not know the outcome in FL until weeks after the election. Can you say 2000?
12:45 Comment from Mark, Greenbelt: Is early voting a new phenomenon, or is it increasing? It seems we should make it easier for people to vote when they can.
12:46 Michael McDonald: We are seeing more people vote early, particularly in states that offer the option. However, only MD changed its law from 2008 to allow in-person early voting. OH is sending absentee ballot requests to all registered voters, which is not a change in law, but a change in procedure that is expected to significantly increase early voting there.
12:47 Comment from Jennifer S. : Why do we vote on Tuesday? It seems inconvenient. Wouldn't more people vote if we did it on the weekend? Or over a period of days that offered both morning and evening hours?
12:48 Michael McDonald: We used to have early voting in the US! Back at the Founding, elections were held over several days to allow people living in remote areas to get to the courthouse (the polling place back in the day) to vote. In the mid-1840s, the federal gov't set the current single day for voting because -- what else? -- claims of vote fraud. That people could vote more than once.
12:49 Comment from Winston: What percentage of the U.S. population votes? And, if you could make one change that would increase voting in the U.S. what would be?
12:50 Michael McDonald: I also calculate turnout rates for the country for the media and academics. 62.2% of the eligible voters cast a ballot that counted in 2008. If I were to wave a magic wand, I would have election day registration. California just adopted it yesterday (but starting 2015). States with EDR have +5-7 percentage points of turnout.
12:50 Comment from Bernie S.: One of your colleagues at Brookings, Bill Galston, has suggested that we make voting mandatory, as they do in Australia. What do you think of that idea? Is it even possible here?
12:51 Michael McDonald: That will never happen in a county that values individual freedom so deeply as the US. Fun fact: a few years back, AZ voters rejected a ballot initiative to have voters entered into a lottery.
12:51 Comment from James: If early voting becomes more and more common, shouldn't candidates start campaigning earlier?
12:53 Michael McDonald: They do. In fact, you will see the presidential candidates visit battleground states that have in-person early voting at the start of the period. In 2008, you could see how early voting increased in places where Obama held rallies.
12:53 Comment from Devi P. : What are the factors that drive turnout? How do we get people to the polls? And what can you say about the "microtargeting" strategies the political parties are using to get their voters out?
12:54 Michael McDonald: One of the major ways in which elections have changed in the past decade is that campaigns now place more effort into voter contacts. Over 50% of people reported a contact in 2008. These contacts are known to increase turnout rates by upwards of 10 percentage points. Even contacts from Facebook friends seems to matter!
12:54 Comment from Wendy P, Ohio: What's your position on electronic voting? Can't every voting machine be hacked? Isn't plain old paper balloting more secure?
12:56 Michael McDonald: I went to Caltech, so I am sensitive to the potential for hacking. That said, I encourage experimentation so that we can build a better system. There are counties that do hold electronic elections!
12:56 Comment from Leslie: 400,000 seems like a lot - does this actually have impact on the electoral votes, and if so, should we be worried in this coming election that a lengthy recall may occur?
12:57 Michael McDonald: It could affect the outcome. So please spread the word through your networks. This is the #1 way in which votes are lost in the system!
12:57 Comment from JVotes: Perhaps we should microtarget with ballot issues. Many Americans seem disappointed with the two candidates we have to choose from.
12:58 Michael McDonald: Actually, ballot issues are known to increase turnout. But only a small amount in a presidential election, about 1 percentage point. People vote in the main show: the presidential election.
12:58 Michael McDonald: Interesting aside on that: early voting seems to have a small turnout effect in presidential election, but a larger effect in state and local elections.
12:58 Comment from Jaime Ravenet: Is there a reading of the new voter ID requirements (in at least the 9 most contested states) that does not constitute an "abridgment" of citizens' voting rights?
1:00 Michael McDonald: Perhaps under state constitutions. But the US Supreme Court has already ruled in favor of Indiana's id law. Still, that does not mean that lawyers will try to find some way under federal law to overturn them. TX was blocked because their law was determined to be discriminatory, per Sec. 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
1:00 Vivyan Tran: Thanks for the questions everyone, see you next week!