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Early Voting Tied To Decrease In Overall Turnout

Tuesday is Election Day. But in Vermont, people have already been voting for over a month, and we're considering whether that early voting has resulted in any changes to the traditional day of voting. Bert Johnson, associate professor of Political Science at Middlebury College, says that new research shows that early voting actually diminished turnout by a few percentage points. That’s based on a paper published earlier this year by researchers at the University of Wisconsin.  

“Certainly it makes it easier. The problem with why it decreases turnout appears to be that the people who vote early are the ones who would be most likely to vote anyway, so you’re not actually increasing turnout by making that easier for those folks,” Johnson explained.

Part of the reason, Johnson continued is that voting is a social activity. “You go out with your neighbors perhaps, you see them at the polling places, you participate in the campaign hoopla around Election Day and of course that’s absent when you’re voting early.”  

Johnson said the get out the vote efforts of campaigns on Election Day can also draw in people to participate who might not otherwise do so.

“When there’s early voting, campaigns can target that mobilization very precisely in a way that doesn’t draw new people in,” he said.

Early voting does make it easier for campaigns to focus their efforts where they most need to, on people who haven’t voted yet.

Most states have early voting and it has been increasing in recent years. In 1992, only 7 percent of votes were cast early, by 2012 that number was up to 30 percent nationwide. In Vermont, 25 percent of votes were cast early in 2012.

The decrease in turnout, 2-3 percent that has been attributed to early voting, is not significant enough to get rid of early voting, Johnson said. There are segments of the population that benefit from early voting, like people overseas and people who otherwise can’t get to the polls on Election Day.

This research has been the topic of discussion for political scientists, Johnson said, because it reinforces what political scientists have known for a long time, which is that voting is overwhelmingly social.

“Activities that tend to isolate individuals tend to make that social effect less profound,” Johnson said, and he added that moving elections to weekends would make it easier for people to vote and would increase the social aspect of it.

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