EDITORIAL: Election exposes flaws in early voting

Early voting options are beneficial, but lawmakers need to have a plan for candidate dropouts, last-minute revelations

Super Tuesday exposed a super hole in the concept of early voting.

It’s a lesson for states like New York as they consider and implement new initiatives designed to boost voter turnout.

Given people’s busy and complex lives today, the idea of forcing people to show up during a limited number of hours on a single day to vote seems archaic.

The idea behind early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, internet voting and voting by mail is to make it easier and more convenient for people to vote, in order to get more people involved in the democratic process.

New York, in particular, has been struggling to find creative ways to boost voter turnout, which is consistently among the lowest in the nation.

Our state was relatively late among other states in introducing early voting, which gives voters the chance to go to the polls during specially designated times and at limited locations prior to actual Election Day. It was introduced in our state last year, and for the most part went off with few glitches.

But the Super Tuesday political primaries earlier this month — during which voters in 14 states selected their party candidates for president — exposed one major flaw in the idea of early voting and in other initiatives like it.

Several candidates who were on the ballot when early voting started dropped out after people had already voted for them.

Voters in Texas, California and Colorado were among those who had no idea that Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobochar and Tom Steyer would throw in the towel so soon after Vice President Joe Biden’s surprisingly large victory in the South Carolina primary the week before.

If you as a voter checked the box for any of those candidates, your vote was essentially wasted.

Once you vote, you usually don’t get to vote again if something changes between then and Election Day — at least not now. 

When voters in Colorado sought to have their mail-in ballots invalidated so they could vote in person on Super Tuesday, the state’s secretary of state called the idea “theoretically possible but not theoretically legal.”

The solution is apparently not as easy as ripping up a ballot and letting someone vote again.

In passing these early-voting laws, many states didn’t consider what would happen if some candidates dropped out.

And they certainly didn’t plan for presidential primaries, a volatile and unpredictable behemoth which, as we’ve seen, can be upended literally overnight.

These turnout-boosting initiatives were designed primarily to address turnout in general elections, where it’s rare for the ballot to change after it’s been printed.

We’ve all heard stories of a candidate dying right before or on Election Day. And once in a while, a candidate experiences an unfortunate criminal indictment or exposure of an extramarital affair. But usually, the ballot stays the same and they deal with the consequences afterward.

Still, states should look at the Super Tuesday situation and consider what other factors might prompt a voter to want to change their vote after they’ve already voted early.

We hear about it each year when it comes to our publication deadline for letters to the editor related to elections.

We set the deadline 10 days prior to the election so that we have enough time to verify, edit and publish all the letters that come in.

Still, readers want to write all the way up to Election Day, just in case some new revelation about a candidate becomes public between our deadline and the vote.

Current U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand may owe her political career in part to a situation like that.

Back in 2006, when newcomer Gillibrand was challenging incumbent Rep. John Sweeney for his 20th District congressional seat, two newspapers reported a week before Election Day allegations that the congressman had grabbed his wife by the throat.

Did the domestic violence allegation cost Sweeney the election and give it to Gillibrand? Did enough voters who had planned to vote for Sweeney change their votes to Gillibrand on Election Day, or decide not to vote at all, in the wake of the allegations?

What would have happened had early voting been in place then, and voters as yet unaware of the domestic violence allegations had already locked in their vote for Sweeney?

It happens. And it will happen again.

In Tuesday’s crucial primary in Michigan, the state has factored in the prospect of candidate dropouts by giving voters the opportunity to “spoil” their ballots. Voters had until Saturday to request a new ballot by mail, and have until Monday to request a new ballot in person, should they want to vote for another candidate if their favorite drops out. They can use the new ballot to vote for a candidate who is still on the ballot.

But what happens in races where late-breaking news changes the public perception of a candidate? Or what happens if a voter just changes their mind at the last minute and wants to vote for someone other than their original choice?

Enacting a policy of allowing voters to cancel their votes for every early-ballot election could get cumbersome, confusing and expose elections to mismanagement or fraud. Imagine the chaos that could ensue.

Another solution, at least to the dropout problem, is ranked-choice voting.

That allows voters to list their favorite candidates by order of preference. So if your guy drops out, the vote for your next favorite candidate on your list is counted instead. That way, at least your vote is not wasted on a candidate who is no longer in the race.

We suppose that same approach also could work should your favorite politician get arrested for embezzlement on Nov. 1.

Another option: States could limit the time prior to an election that voters are allowed to cast ballots so that only very-last-minute departures, deaths or dalliances would factor into someone’s vote.

Maybe voters will just have to accept the risks of early voting in favor of the convenience and hope for the best. If you’re that worried about late changes, just make time in your schedule to vote in person on Election Day.

Whatever initiatives lawmakers concoct to entice more voters to the polls, they should thoroughly investigate the potential pitfalls of each option and plan for contingencies before they enact the legislation.

If you don’t believe in the need for better legislation, just ask fans of Mayor Pete in Texas how they’re feeling today.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion


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