Voter turnout in US elections not increased by early voting measures

Washington, DC—Early voting measures are touted by election reform advocates as a principal way of increasing voter turnout, but a new empirical study by political scientists concludes that most early voting options have a negligible or even negative impact on turnout.

The research, conducted by Paul Gronke, Eva Galanes-Rosenbaum, and Peter A. Miller (all of Reed College), is entitled “Early Voting and Turnout” and appears in an election reform symposium in the October issue of PS: Political Science & Politics, a journal of the American Political Science Association. The full symposium is available online at http://www.apsanet.org/content_47809.cfm.

Early voting describes any system where election rules and procedure are relaxed to allow voters to cast their ballot prior to the official Election Day. By the late 1990s twenty U.S. states had at least one type of early voting on the books. The aftermath of the 2000 presidential elections and passage of the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA) spurred the further spread of early voting. Today, early voting has been largely adopted outside the Northeast and high numbers of early voters exist mainly in large states and those with large rural populations. The highest rates of early voting occur in states with the most established early voting systems.

Typically, reformers argue that maximization of turnout is a primary goal and reducing barriers between voters and the polls is an important method for achieving higher turnout. According to the authors, however, “the empirical literature has found decidedly mixed results.” They assess three primary means of early voting employed by U.S. states: early in-person voting (EIP), no-excuse absentee voting, and vote-by-mail (VBM) and find that “…EIP, absentee balloting, and VBM all do result in a more accurate count.” However, the authors assert “the verdict on cost-savings is less clear” but nevertheless “flat or slightly positive cost savings have led to widespread recommendations in favor of all varieties of early voting.”

Most existing studies of early voting are dated and limited in relevance by their original design. By employing a more recent model of voter turnout with updated data covering presidential and midterm elections in the period 1980-2002, this study explores whether early voting reforms do in fact increase turnout across a wide variety of electoral and campaign contexts, different kinds of voting reforms, and over time. “We find little evidence that early voting reforms increase turnout,” state the authors, “with the exception of VBM in Oregon, and then only in presidential elections.” Furthermore, “in midterm elections, none of the reforms has a statistically significant impact on turnout….”

This new study confirms much of the existing literature regarding the modest impact of early voting reforms on turnout. “We remain skeptical of those who advocate in favor of early voting reforms primarily on the basis of increased turnout,” conclude the authors. “Both these results, and prior work in political science simply do not support these claims. There may be good reasons to adopt early voting…but boosting turnout is not one of them.”

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