Early Voting in the Granite State?

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Early voting (no-excuse absentee and early in-person) is under consideration in New Hampshire as Gov. Maggie Hansen signed HB521, which establishes a “committee to study New Hampshire election laws and procedures.”

(These are not the only pieces of legislation concerning early voting that was considered this session:

The mandate for the committee under HB251 is fairly broad:

220:3 Duties. The committee shall study all current New Hampshire election laws and procedures and review all options to increase participation including but not limited to solutions to limit lines and wait times in casting ballots and voter registration, public education related to election law, election procedures, early voting, and absentee voting. The committee shall consult with and solicit testimony from the public in the course of its duties.

If it allowed early and no-excuse absentee voting, New Hampshire would join Vermont and Maine as the third New England state allowing these methods of balloting.  However, the state’s chief election officer, Secretary of State Bill Gardner, has already expressed skepticism.   Gardner says that early voting:

(D)iminishes the value of Election Day itself, because when you write stories about people voting and going to places to cast early ballots, when people read two or three more stories about voting, the significance of the one day itself is diminished in a lot of people’s minds.

Secretary Gardner also says that early voting actually decreases turnout: “how can you make it easier and by making it easier, you get fewer people voting…but that’s what the numbers show.”

On Gardner’s first point, I’d like to say that we have research on how early voting diminishes the value of Election Day, but the record is quite thin.

A seminal paper in the field by John Brehm, Wendy Rahn, and Neil Carlson showed that national elections do generate a small increase in “social capital”, shown by post-election increases in things like generalized trust in government, trust in others, and social identification with groups.  However, the cause of the increase was not the act of voting, or psychological engagement in the campaign.  Only mobilization contacts by political parties and candidate organizations directly increased social capital.

The Brehm et al. piece is based on the 1996 election, however, at least two generations ago in terms of elections, election administration, and election reform.  Brehm, Rahn, and Carlson never asked whether or not the mode of voting mattered–for them, an election consisted of mobilization by campaigns, by non-campaign organizations, a citizen’s engagement with the campaign, and the act of voting.

Others, including myself, have speculated that early voting may change the way individuals think about Election Day as a political and social event, but to date, no one has been able to establish any credible evidence in favor or against this hypothesis.  Martha Kropf  has revisited the question using date from 2004 and found that ” pre-Election Day voting has little effect on cooperative behaviors in a cross sectional survey.”  There have been to my knowledge no follow-up studies.

Perhaps this should not be surprising, given Brehm et al.’s original finding.  After all, far from diminishing campaign mobilization, all indications are that early voting increases the length and intensity of campaign activities.

None of this is particularly supportive of Secretary Gardner, but admittedly the research record is thin.

On the second point, however, the record is pretty thick and not at all supportive of the Secretary’s claim.  There is just one study out of the University of Wisconsin that purports to show a negative impact of early voting on turnout.  The study stands nearly alone in the field in showing a negative impact of early voting (some scholars have shown small declines under “forced” vote by mail in small precincts in California and others have shown that this effect can be offset by election advertising by local election officials).   As I have pointed out in the past, the Wisconsin paper is based only on one year’s worth of data (2008), does not discriminate between voting by mail or early in-person, and has not been published or replicated.  Dozens of other articles have shown the opposite result: a small but statistically significant increase in turnout.

The Wisconsin team publicized their findings in a NY Times op ed, and this may be what Secretary Gardner is relying on when he made that statement, but otherwise, I’d say the jury is decidedly out.

Secretary Gardner is exactly right, though, when he notes that New Hampshire already has high turnout, and any voting reform is likely to have marginal effects.

That’s what I find regrettable thus far; the committee has been empowered to “review all options to increase participation.”  If New Hampshire really wants to increase voter participation, they should make campaigns more competitive, make politics more interesting, get citizens more engaged, and raise the educational and income levels of your populace.  Those are the big drivers of turnout.

To borrow from Pew, election administration and reform is designed to make elections accurate, efficient, convenient, and secure.  

I hope New Hampshire considers this broader mandate, and doesn’t artificially limit themselves to voter turnout, or they are likely to be disappointed in the outcome.