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Vote early, and even earlier

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Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and his wife Lauren checked out after casting their votes in the primary election in March.
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and his wife Lauren checked out after casting their votes in the primary election in March.Craig F. Walker

Voting is sometimes called a “civic duty,” as if the act should involve a degree of personal sacrifice. But it’s actually a right, and there is no reason why exercising that right can’t be made more convenient. It could even encourage more people to participate.

That's the idea behind an early-voting program scheduled to take effect in time for the November presidential election. Under 2014 election reform legislation signed by then-governor Deval Patrick, cities and towns must have at least one voting place open during regular business hours for a maximum of 10 days prior to any general election. The law also allows for the expansion of current voting hours, including on weekends. But faced with erasing a modest deficit in the state budget, Governor Charlie Baker last week vetoed $1.2 million allocated to help get the new program off the ground.

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Early voting is not a radical idea — three dozen states already have such laws on the books, and, four years ago, 31.6 percent of voters nationwide cast ballots before Election Day, according to the US Census Bureau. Nor is Massachusetts' early-voting program particularly expensive in the context of a $38.9 billion budget. The $1.2 million in state funding was intended to offset some of the program's costs that won't fall to individual communities — including the printing of special ballots and ensuring compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Secretary of State William F. Galvin, who called Baker's veto "annoying," said his office is working with municipal clerks statewide to implement the program, regardless of the cut.

The option to vote early benefits people who have health or transportation complications, can't take time off from work, don't have child care, or who otherwise struggle to juggle daily schedules. The Boston-based Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, which also criticized the funding veto, says early voting "is particularly crucial for communities of color and low-income communities."

At the least, the program will allow voters to avoid long waits at polls. "When you're telling everybody that they have to come through the doors in a 13-hour period, you're going to have huge lines," says Galvin, who noted that about 3 million votes were recorded in Massachusetts in each of the last two presidential elections.

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Some critics of early voting say that lengthening the time frame of elections can lower participation rates by making elections seem less special or urgent, and that people who vote early tend to be those who would have cast ballots during scheduled election days. Others worry that early voters aren't as knowledgable about the issues as those who wait until all of the campaigning is over. But governments can't force citizens to study policy platforms, or to demonstrate that they're well-informed, before choosing a candidate.

The early-voting program has the support of House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, as well as the citizen advocacy group Common Cause. There's still time before the current legislative session ends for lawmakers to restore money that will improve the chances of smooth rollout. It would be a bipartisan vote in favor of voters.