Jay Evensen: Early voting for 2012 election has become ridiculous political tool

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 10 2012 4:26 p.m. MDT

Eric Dean, a 19-year-old Purdue University sophomore, casts an early ballot in this year's election on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012, at the Marion County Clerk's office in Indianapolis as his father, Jeff Dean, right, watches his son, who was voting in his first presidential election.

Associated Press

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I have not been one to stand in the way of an extended voting period that allows as many people as possible to cast ballots, but this is ridiculous.

Five states already allowed for in-person voting before the first presidential debate was held. Add in absentee balloting by mail, and 30 states were accepting ballots a full six weeks before Election Day.

By the time early voting begins in Utah on Oct. 23, folks here will feel like they've been lapped a few times before even starting the race.

While a lot of pundits are scratching their heads, wondering about those elusive undecided voters that are so precious this time of year, I'm having an opposite problem. I can't wrap my mind around the idea of people being so certain about their ballot they are willing to cast it weeks ahead of the election.

What on earth are they thinking?

Two debates remain between the presidential candidates. But even if these voters' minds are immovably made up on that race, there are countless debates remaining between candidates for state and congressional offices, as well as arguments to be made for and against ballot issues and state constitutional amendments.

Have these people studied all the issues and candidates and made informed decisions? Is it possible to be fully informed when all the events of a campaign have yet to play themselves out?

Voting, after all, is not like paying a Visa bill filing income taxes. It isn't something to get out of the way as quickly as possible so you can worry about other things.

Those who cast ballots today are saying they have made up their minds, thank you. And they are signaling to the rest of us that those minds cannot be changed no matter what happens between now and Nov. 6.

Granted, the idea of a game-changing "October surprise" can be overblown. Most "surprises" are fairly minor and inconsequential.

But it is worth remembering how late in the 2008 campaign the financial crisis hit with full steam, giving each candidate an opportunity to react and offer a plan going forward.

What if, heaven forbid, tensions in the Middle East were to boil over into a full-scale war in coming weeks? Wouldn't the way the president and his challenger respond to such fast-moving events inform the votes of intelligent citizens? Couldn't the same be said for how any congressional candidate reacts?

Full disclosure time: This whole subject makes me a bit uncomfortable. As long ago as 2003 I wrote in support of extended voting, which at the time was seen as a way to reduce long lines on Election Day and allow the state to install electronic voting equipment at a minimal cost.

Most of the arguments I heard on the other side were emotional ones about the need for a communal experience on a set day — as if the health of the republic depended on everyone standing in line.

Some thoughtful people expressed concerns that state officials were mistakenly trying to increase voter turnout by making it easier to vote. I fully agree that our real civic duty regarding elections is not to vote, but to cast an informed vote.

It made sense at the time, however, to add a few days to the voting season, even if for no other reason than to reduce the strain to the system on Election Day.

But we've taken the idea to ridiculous extremes.

Today, as a recent USA Today editorial noted, early voting has become a political tool. Any attempt to limit it gets attacked by Democrats as a Republican plot to exclude voters, while Republicans worry about fraud.

"Election Day ought to be a celebration of American democracy," the editorial said. "Instead, all the partisan maneuvering threatens to leave the nation with a system where too many people vote too soon, and where too few vote when the time is right."

Voting should be reasonably convenient and — unless someone comes up with a system allowing people to keep changing their votes until the last day — it should be as closely clustered around the actual Election Day as possible.

Jay Evensen is associate editor of the Deseret News editorial page. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, www.jayevensen.com.

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