Ask Bob: Why Is Early Voting So Popular In Vermont?
There’s been a surge in early voting in many parts of the state this year. Why are more people turning to the early voting system and could it eventually lead to things like internet voting in Vermont?
To answer this, we turn to longtime political reporter Bob Kinzel for another installment of Ask Bob.
Some history on early voting
The way we talk about early voting says it all about how much has changed.
In 1986, which was an off-presidential year election, we described early voting as "casting an absentee ballot." Voters needed to have a pretty good reason for not being able to show up on Election Day; you almost had to have a note from your doctor. In 1986, just under 7 percent — about 13,000 voters — used the absentee ballot system.
Then, in 1993, the requirement that you had to have a good excuse was dropped from Vermont election law. In the 1994 election, the number of early voters increased to just under 10 percent. At this time, voters could cast their ballots within 30 days of the election.
In 2009, the timeframe was increased to 45 days before the election to comply with federal election law. And folks were really encouraged to vote early. In 2016, a presidential election year, almost 30 percent of all votes cast in Vermont used the early voting system.
This year, there are predictions that the percentage will increase again. So it's become a very popular way for many people to vote.
How early can Vermonters vote?
The window for early voting differs by state. Vermont allows voters to cast ballots up to 45 days before Election Day, which is the earliest any state is allowed to vote.
Why is early voting so popular?
It's seems to be a matter of convenience. Before 1993, you had to go to your town clerk and explain why you were going to be away on Election Day. This inconvenience probably deterred some people from voting at all.
There's now several easy ways to cast your ballot early. You can call your town clerk and have a ballot mailed to you, then either mail the ballot back or drop it off at the town clerk’s office. So, folks who know who they’re going to vote for ahead of time can vote without ever leaving their house. It’s also possible to vote early by stopping by the clerk’s office.
Another likely factor behind the popularity of early voting is that, in some elections, people have waited in line to vote for a long time. Early voting has become a viable alternative.
Can early voters change their vote?
No. Just like with regular voting, if you change your mind you can't get your ballot back. You have to make up your mind and stick to it.
Do some towns have more early voters, and why?
Short answer: Yes.
In 2016, the statewide early voting average was roughly 30 percent. In Brattleboro, the early voting rate was roughly 55 percent – the highest rate in the state. That means more than half of those people who voted in Brattleboro cast their ballots before Election Day. That same year, Belvidere had one of the lowest early voting rates in the state, with just 4 percent of votes coming in early.
A very general explanation for this is that the rural parts of Vermont tend to use early voting less. That’s because rural voters don't usually face long lines on Election Day. Plus, rural communities seem to like the tradition of voting on Election Day itself — it's an opportunity to gather with their neighbors. But Vermont’s more populated towns don’t necessarily have the same sense of community, which is why early voting has become such a popular option.
Will Vermont ever allow Internet voting?
It’s very unlikely that we’ll see either internet voting or touchscreen voting in Vermont, though a number of other states are looking into them. Both of these methods of voting are illegal under current state law, which requires that there be a paper ballot when a person votes.
How has early voting changed candidates campaign strategies?
In the old days, campaigns spent a ton of money on media, especially television, in the final 10 days or two weeks of the campaign. Now, it’s likely that a third of all voters have already voted by that time, so campaigns seem to be investing more of their resources on social media and early media strategies to reflect this major change. Also, campaigns now target undecided voters more in the final lead up to elections, since people who vote early have already made up their minds.
Want more answers from Bob? Check out our previous installments of Ask Bob.