For most Americans, the days when the polls open bright and early on the first Tuesday of November and close by 7 p.m. are long gone. Now, there are options. In 32 states, voters can cast a ballot early by going to a designated early polling location (or mailing their ballot-in) between 45 days and a week before Election Day. In 27 states, any registered voter can cast an absentee ballot without an excuse, either in person or via the mail.
But in the state of Virginia, where the governor’s race between Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli will take center stage this Tuesday, the story is somewhat different. With only few exceptions, voting happens all on one day. Polls show that McAuliffe has a narrowing five point edge over Cuccinelli coming out of the final weekend of the campaign.
In Virginia, if you don’t have one of 15 possible excuses, you are not eligible for absentee voting. Excuses range from being in college to having a long commute or a religious obligation. Though the state has taken steps to make in-person absentee more accessible by extending absentee voting until Nov. 2, proponents of wide spread early voting say the fact that an excuse is needed is still too limiting. “Getting an absentee ballot isn’t that difficult for some segments of the population,” said Hope Amezquita, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia. “It’s just there are 15 excuses that will allow a voter to be eligible to apply, but there are a lot of people whose excuses aren’t included.” While about 30% of voters voted early nationwide in 2008, for example, just 14% voted early in Virginia.
Though turnout and absentee voting rates are generally lower in non-presidential elections, Amezquita says every election is impacted by the fact that Virginia does not have no-excuse early or absentee voting. “For some it will be logistically impossible to conveniently vote on Election Day,” Amezquita said, taking into account long commutes, non-traditional work schedules, and illness. “No excuse absentee voting would alleviate that issue.”
According to a new report by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, limiting voting to a window of 8 or 12 hours on one Tuesday in November is not convenient for most Americans. “Every election there are a certain amount of problems that you can never anticipate, “said Diana Kasdan, legal counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice and the author of the report titled Early Voting: What Works. “The benefit of early and in person voting is that you can have 20 or 30 percent of electorate voted before the election day so if something comes up you have a lot more hands on deck and less people at the polls.”
The report lists reduced stress on the voting system, shorter lines, and improved poll worker performance as some of the other key benefits of early, in-person voting and quotes election officials, like Karen Brinson, the director of elections of Translyvania County North Carolina as saying. “I don’t know that we can do elections without early voting anymore.”
In 2012, over 2.7 million people voted early in North Carolina, according to state election statistics, constituting 61% of all ballots cast, and 41.7% of all registered voters. “It’s working in most of the country,” Kasdan said.
Yet, not all states are open to expanding the voting period. In fact, in some states like Florida during the 2012 election and more recently in North Carolina, the state legislatures have passed laws reducing the number of early voting days, often to the disdain of voters and Democrats who have in benefitted in some cases from voters hitting the polls early. “States have to balance different things,” said Rick Hasen, a professor at University of California at Irvine. “Some people don’t like early voting because it means that people are making decisions before Election Day. There are also cost considerations.”
In New Jersey, which will also elect a new governor on Tuesday, the state legislature passed a bill to allow voting to begin two weeks before Election Day, but Gov. Christie vetoed it largely due to the $25 million price tag on the first-year implementation. Absentee voting by mail, however, is relatively easy in the state.