States Get Out the Vote … Early

Many voters choose to vote early if their state offers some form of early voting. According to NBC News, as of Sept. 15, more than 1.5 million votes have been cast for the presidential election, and more than 1 million of those votes come from 12 key battleground states. Four years ago, roughly 36 percent of votes cast in the United States were cast early.

According to the 2008 paper “Convenience Voting,” there are several ways voters can cast their ballots before Election Day. Vote-by-mail systems send ballots out to voters approximately two weeks before an election, and voters can then drop their ballots in the mail, at a satellite location or a county elections office. In-person early voting systems allow residents to cast their ballots at a satellite location in the weeks before an election. No-excuse absentee voting systems allow voters to apply for an absentee ballot without having to provide an excuse for the request; the ballots can be received by voters as early as 45 days before the election and must return them by Election Day.

Early voting varies state by state; some states do not have any form of early voting, some offer in-person early voting in every county, while others vote entirely by mail. Residents of Washington state vote almost entirely by mail; while there are physical voting centers in each county, most Washington state voters choose to vote early by mail. Texas utilizes an early in-person voting method. In the 2012 election, more than 60 percent of votes cast in the state were early in-person votes. The majority of states provide early in-person voting and no-excuse absentee ballots.

Why is early voting catching on across the country? Paul Gronke, a professor of political science at Reed College who specializes in elections and electoral behavior, has a simple answer. “Early voting practices makes voting much more convenient,” he said. ”The more accessible early voting is, the greater the turn out numbers will be.”

Having been a resident of Washington state most of my life, I can attest to the convenience of vote-by-mail systems, it turns voting into a 10-minute errand that I can easily work into my day.

Convenience isn’t the only advantage to implementing early voting systems. Gronke argues that a full vote-by-mail system reduces administration challenges and costs by utilizing the existing, largely automated postal service. He also points to research that indicates early voting options increase voter turnout.

“My study along with 20 plus other studies have all found that early voting implementation increase voter turnout anywhere from 2 to 4 percent,” Gronke said.

According to Ann McGeehan, former director of elections for the Texas secretary of state and policy adviser for the CSG Overseas Voting Initiative, early in-person voting provides the added benefit of troubleshooting election systems in advance of Election Day. “Early voting allows election officials to ease into the election process, which gives them more time to administer and react to problems that are flushed out, rather than all the problems coming out Election Day, leading to a mad dash to fix them,” she said.

While most states have some form of early voting option in place, some still do not. Election experts like Gronke suggest that while those states may be behind the curve, it’s not too late for them to catch up. “I know that changing the rules leads to uncertainty, but early voting empowers citizens and organizations,” he said. “I haven’t seen a negative case--voters, campaigns and election officials are all happy about early voting.”

To find out about your state’s early voting policy click here.