Part 2: Early Voting Regret a True Threat to Informed Elections

In spite of a U.S. District Court ruling in Ohio this summer expanding early voting by three days, the Columbus Dispatch’s analysis shows that longer early voting periods do not result in a higher overall election turnout.

In February however, Independent Senator Angus King of Maine, who caucuses with Democrats, said he believes that early voting creates the issue of early voting regret due to poor information access.


At a Senate Rules Committee hearing in February, he told the story of how there was, “a situation in a Maine election recently where we had very early voting. . . . [I]t was a month or more before the election. Thedynamics of the election changed in the last several weeks. And weactually had people going into their town offices trying to retrieve their early vote, to change it because of developments in the election.”

King went on to say, “I do think that there's a legitimate issue about how far in advance. Because elections do tend to sometimes come into focus in the last several weeks. And we actually had that experience. I knew people that went to their town office and said, ‘How can I get my vote back? I want to change it,’ and they couldn't.” Senator King then asked the witnesses at the hearing, “[h]ow widespread is it? Is it a nationalproblem or is it extremely localized?”


The truth is, early voting regret is not limited to small town mayoral races, but it extends to presidential elections. As determined by USA Today, Florida voters regretted casting their early ballots in the 2012 Republican primary before seeing the results from other state primaries and watching the candidate debates.


The first presidential debate in the 2012 election occurred on October 3. In post-debate analysis, MSNBC’s Chris Mathews said that, “[Obama] was enduring the debate rather than fighting it. What was Romney doing? He was winning. If he has five more of these nights, forget it.” Joe Scarborough, also of MSNBC, said the debate, “has been a real Emperor has no clothes moment. . . . ”


The key swing states of Ohio and Florida both began early voting on October 2, 2012 before that first important presidential debate. In an op-ed by the St. Petersburg Times, the paper warns its readers about early voting regret saying, “voters who choose to vote early, do so at their own risk. If candidates are going to pull any dirty tricks in a campaign, they often do so in the last couple of weeks before Election Day. No doubt, there are voters who have cast an early ballot and wound up wishing they could get that vote back.” Undoubtedly, the premature early voting period led to voter regret after the debate.


It is difficult to deny the influence of Presidential debates. During the October 6, 1976 debate, President Ford sealed his fate with his notable gaffe about the Soviet Union. Similarly, in October 1980, Ronald Reagan asked the famous question, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” during his debate with Carter. These late-breaking debate highlights can sway even resolved voters.


study published by the Boston University Political Science Department analyzed the 2012 Presidential race in Colorado, concluding that “instant gratification” mobilizes voters, which impacts a broad range of elections. The study found that, “the presidential campaign visits to swing states . . . were often timed to coincide with the start of the early voting period in order to generate news and excitement so as to inspire the casting of early ballots.”


There is also scholarly support for this premise. An article published in the Election Law Journal finds that early voters in the 2008 California presidential primary election, “did not fully incorporate information about candidate withdrawals and momentum,” and “presumably failed to incorporate other potentially vote relevant pieces of late information.” The article concluded that, “this suggests that convenience voting could have important effects on general election outcomes,” and that it, “may become grounds for individuals to question the legitimacy of an election.”  


Senator King’s concerns are valid. Voter regret is real, and it is a national problem. There are strong arguments that the early voting period should be shortened or eliminated altogether. As in the case of Ohio and Florida, early voters in key swing states cast ballots in the 2012 election without being fully informed. Elections often come to a head right before the election, and these examples show that early voting can cause a distorted result.

This post was written by Phil Demarest.