Is ‘Early Voting’ Reducing Montgomery County’s Election Turnout?
Much sound and fury has been expended by the Montgomery County Council over the decision of the County’s Board of Elections to shift two early voting sites, one from Chevy Chase to Potomac and the other from Burtonsville to Brookeville.
Perhaps the wildest and most over-the-top comment came from Council member Tom Hucker, who called the decision by the Republican majority Board of Elections “naked voter suppression that will make it harder for thousands of working families and minorities in my district to exercise their right to vote.”
Lost in the County Council’s silly kerfuffle is that most early voting sites are unaffected, including two sites remaining in Silver Spring (population 71,000) and one at Wheaton (population 48,000). The Board of Elections appropriately addressed the lack of any site in Potomac/North Potomac area (population 68,000).
The Chevy Chase site was within the 5 mile benchmark radius set by state law with a Silver Spring site. Burtonsville has a lower 5 mile nearby population because of its proximity on two sides to the county’s border with Howard and PG counties.
So now, while few (if any) voters in the east county Silver Spring- Wheaton region will have to go as far as 5 miles to an early voting site, no longer will the nearest site to Potomac Village be more than 5 miles away.
Still, the Council’s shrill claims about voter suppression deserve to be taken on head on.
Consider that in the 2014 primary, just 16.2% of the county’s 630,000 eligible voters cast ballots on primary day or during the eight-day early voting window. That placed Montgomery dead last among Maryland counties, trailing Baltimore County (24.6%) Anne Arundel (24.2%), Frederick (23.2%), Howard (19.7%) and Prince George’s (17.6%). Statewide about 22% of those eligible voted. These numbers come as overall primary voting turnout dropped across the state compared with prior years.
The County Council remains determined to preserve the failed status quo, instead of trying to identify strategies to improve voter turnout. The Board of Elections, on the other hand, deserves credit for its faithful implementation of state law’s early voting requirements.
In fact, however, a review of the data on turnout in early voting jurisdictions suggests more voting days reduces, not increases turnout. A study “Turnout: The Unanticipated Consequences of Election Reform” in the prestigious American Journal of Political Science conducts a statistically rigorous analysis reaching this conclusion.
While the conclusion certainly runs counter to the expectations of early voting advocates, the authors offer the possible explanation that: “early voting has created negative unanticipated consequences by reducing the civic significance of elections for individuals and altering the incentives for political campaigns to invest in mobilization.”
In less academic prose, this means that a single election day allows more resources to be focused on mobilizing turnout, while spreading voting over a longer period of time results in “lower probability” voters failing to do so.
Consider that one actual voter suppression method is to create confusion about when Election Day actually is. “Primary Day is Tuesday for Candidate X and the following Tuesday for Candidate Y.” In effect, early voting schemes are creating similar confusion about when to vote.
In fact, by way of comparison, both buried in the study’s statistics and not particularly well discussed in article’s text, the data shows that early voting actually reduces turnout even more than requiring voters to furnish personal identification.
No doubt if Republicans had been the ones to originally propose “early voting,” the Tom Huckers of the political world now be accusing the party of having had a devious voter suppression plan!