Early voting starts Monday in Massachusetts, with polling places opening across the state. It’s convenient, quick — and basically useless when it comes to increasing turnout.
Yes, you read that correctly. Early voting doesn’t help draw new voters to the polls. In fact, several studies have shown that it actually makes things worse.
The basic problem is that early voting doesn’t address the real impediments to voting: confusing registration processes, inflexible work schedules, and poor communication with potential voters.
There are other, proven ways to boost turnout, but Massachusetts hasn’t fully embraced them. So you can expect this presidential election to follow the old pattern, in which you invite everyone to vote and about a third of them never show up.
Why doesn’t early voting increase turnout?
For some people, a trip to the polling booth can be very costly. It requires an absence from work, lost wages, special arrangements for transportation, or additional child care coverage.
Intuitively, it would seem like adding a bunch of additional days to the voting calendar would make thing a lot easier. And in some ways it does. Lines tend to be shorter, and voters are more satisfied with their experience.
But early voting has been tried in dozens of other states with little impact on turnout. A recent review by the Government Accountability Office found “most studies of early in-person voting reported no evidence of an effect on turnout or found decreases in turnout.”
Researchers are still trying to understand exactly why this is, but one hypothesis is that early voting makes election day less special — reducing the size of the Tuesday wave which used to carry people to the polls as if for a civic celebration.
Another possibility is that the kind of people who don’t traditionally vote also tend to be less plugged in to election happenings, which means they may not even hear about early voting.
Massachusetts’ law does little to alleviate these sorts of difficulties. Most important, it doesn’t allow for clear, get-out-the-early-vote messaging, because each city and town across the state has its own hours and procedures. So while voters in Brookline can head to the polls from 9 to 5 this coming Saturday, those in Everett will be out of luck after 1 p.m.
The most the state can say is: go online to see when voting starts in your town. And while that’s probably enough for election-obsessed news hounds, marginal voters would benefit from a messaging blitz with more detailed information.
What steps would boost turnout?
Same-day registration seems to make a real difference. That way, if you want to vote, you can just show up at your polling place with a valid ID, register on the spot, and cast your ballot. Massachusetts doesn’t offer this service, but roughly a dozen states do, including nearby Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Maine.
Vote by mail also increases participation. That’s particularly true of states like Oregon, where everyone submits their ballots via post. But there’s also a slighter benefit for states that make it easy to pick up absentee ballots.
Massachusetts has long had stringent restrictions on absentee voting, requiring voters to certify that they’ll be out of town or unable to get to the polls due to disability or religious belief. However, this year the state is offering an alternative: early voting by mail. You request an early ballot, it arrives at your house, you send it back via mail. And anyone can do it; no restrictions apply. That looser approach could indeed boost the vote count, but only if people know about it.
Do we really want more voters?
Maybe you think turnout is overrated. Who cares if some people choose to refrain from voting? It could be a sign that they’re not sufficiently interested or informed.
Trouble is, when you make voting unnecessarily onerous, you distort the electorate. Then, the demographics of the voting population no longer reflect the diversity of views and experiences that shape our Commonwealth.
Among other things, voters tend to be older, richer, and whiter than the population as a whole. During the 2012 presidential race, seniors made up less than 15 percent of the Massachusetts population, but nearly 20 percent of all voters.
The slant is even steeper during nonpresidential elections. Just look at the nationwide numbers from 2014: Whereas 46 percent of white voters turned out, that compares to 41 percent of black voters and 27 percent of eligible Hispanic and Asian voters.
This is why it’s important to heed the research and get the voting system rightly organized. Not only will you bring out more voters but you ensure that our elected officials represent the entire population of Massachusetts.