The Pulse: Think outside the ballot box

Posted: October 07, 2012

Now that it's been resolved that photo IDs won't be required in the current election, can we move on to other measures that enhance, not suppress, turnout? Like allowing early voting? Or voting by mobile phone?

According to the Associated Press, Pennsylvania is the largest of 10 states that don't allow early voting, online registration, or Election Day registration.

Here, the voter-registration cutoff is this Tuesday, a month before Election Day. And state law allows for early voting only if residents apply for an absentee ballot through their county's Board of Elections, a process that requires them to document why they'll be unable to make it to a polling place on Election Day. Potential early voters must cite factors such as military service, professional duties, vacations, religious holidays, and illness or physical disability. The Keystone State doesn't allow for in-person early voting or so-called no-excuse or no-fault absentee ballots.

In other words, "convenience" isn't an option, which puts us out of step with the rest of the country.

In 2008, an unprecedented 30 percent of ballots across the nation were cast before Election Day, compared with 20 percent four years earlier and 15 percent in 2000.

State Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski (D., Luzerne) and dozens of cosponsors introduced legislation in June that would have allowed early voting in Pennsylvania. But that measure never made it out of the State Government Committee. (It's reminiscent of the efforts of State Rep. Eugene DePasquale, a candidate for state auditor general, to open the commonwealth's closed primary system, which also languished in committee.)

"Early voting would provide more flexibility for current lifestyles," Pashinski told me by e-mail. "Early voting has worked very well in other states and it's time for PA to join the club that helps its citizens exercise their right to vote."

Michael McDonald, a professor at George Mason University who has carved out a niche as a national expert on early voting, says the percentage of advance voters could reach 35 percent this time around. What accounts for the trend? In an interview with me last week, McDonald cited an increase in the number of states encouraging early voting - and the corresponding voter preference - as driving factors.

"Once you build it, they will come, essentially," he told me. "Once you adopt some form of permissive early voting, more and more people enjoy the convenience of it."

Though he also believes the Obama campaign's conscious mobilization effort contributed to the explosion of early voting four years ago, he doesn't think the trend necessarily favors Democrats.

"What we base our perception on is the 2008 election, where it's very clear from all the evidence that we have - in election data and in survey data - that Obama did very well among the early voters in 2008," he told me. "But it's also important to understand that 2008 was an aberration."

"Typically, if we look at the profile of an early voter, in a few surveys that we do have that might probe a little deeper into this, generally what we see is an electorate that looks more Republican in character than Democratic." Meaning older, whiter, and better educated, according to the data McDonald has studied.

Maybe if someone tells that to the GOP-controlled state legislature it will take this idea more seriously.

The early birds also tend to be "high-knowledge voters," McDonald said, a reality that would seem to dispel the idea that those casting their ballots before Election Day - or before the first debate - are making a less-informed decision.

Early voters tend to "know a lot about the candidates," according to McDonald. "They know where they stand on the issues. So they're casting a vote when they're ready to cast that ballot. No information they're going to learn during the debates is really going to change their mind because these are people who are political junkies and are following things very closely."

Maybe we could be on the vanguard when it comes to voting by mobile device. The new Passbook app on my iPhone facilitates my boarding pass, movie tickets, and store coupons. Why not use it as an additional way to cast a ballot? If it's secure enough for airlines, it should satisfy boards of elections.

According to a recent survey by Harris Interactive on behalf of the Internet radio provider Stitcher, 60 percent of smartphone and tablet owners said they would vote by mobile device if they could do so without concern for fraud. The idea had support from 54 percent of Democrats and 47 percent of Republicans, and enjoyed strong backing among younger voters. McDonald also says there is evidence that early voting can slightly boost turnout. So why not ease early-voting restrictions and open the process up to the Internet?

It would be nice if, for once, Pennsylvania was the head and not the tail of electoral trends. If Pennsylvanians can vote early, maybe some will vote more often.

Contact Michael Smerconish


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