Friday, May 13, 2011

Is it a problem to have too many voters?

This week (May 12), the North Carolina House of Representatives passed, on second reading, Bill 658 entitled “Change Early Vote Period.” Since 2000, North Carolinians have had the opportunity to cast their ballots before the Tuesday following the first Monday in November, contending that giving voters more opportunities than just a twelve-and-a-half hour window to cast their political preferences is good for a democratic republic. State law currently allows for nearly three weeks of voting to occur, with voters having the opportunity to both register and cast their ballot with "one-stop" voting.

Bill 658 reduces the period of “one-stop” voting by a week, with an estimated savings of $1,945 per site of early voting for the counties, according to estimates by the General Assembly’s Fiscal Research Division. In this time of severe budgetary constraints, at both the state and local level, it seems wise to save limited tax dollars wherever it may be found.

But the possibility of narrowing the opportunity for popular participation in our governing system seems harsh in a once every two-year period. Who might benefit from this expanded window of voting opportunity, and who might this harm? Well, interestingly enough, both parties benefit, and unaffiliated voters (those who do not align their voter registration with either the Democratic or Republican party) may ultimately be the loser.

In 2008, David Plouffe, campaign manager for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, noted that Democrats “had to expand the electorate or we were cooked.” And so they mobilized and got people, particulary registered Democrats, out to vote early. In North Carolina’s 2008 election, registered Democrats made up 45.7% of the statewide registered voters; but among early votes cast, 51% were from registered Democrats—meaning Democrats “outperformed” their state-wide registration percentage in casting early votes.

But when it came to Republicans and unaffiliated voters, both groups showed an “underperformance” at casting early ballots in 2008. Republican registered voters were 32% of all statewide voters, they made up only 30% of the early votes cast, while unaffiliated voters (22% of registered voters) were only 18% of early votes cast.

So it’s no surprise that House Majority Leader Skip Stam, a proponent of HB 658, remarked that “October 2008 was the longest month in the history of the world, I think,” and went on to remark that the “election’s just too long, and of course that favors incumbents and it favors wealthy people.”

But what Democrats used in 2008, Republicans learned to use in 2010. In last year’s election, registered Republican voters, who were 31% of statewide voters, were 36% of all early votes cast, while Democrats (44% of statewide voters) were 46% of early votes cast. The GOP learned their lesson from 2008, and had a better "outperformance" in early votes than their Democratic voters.

And still, unaffiliated voters underperformed their statewide total in 2010 (only 17% of early votes cast were from unaffiliated voters, who were 23% of registered voters).

So what does this mean? Political parties and candidates learn, and they learn very quickly when one side uses the rules of the game to their advantage. Democrats used it in 2008, and Republicans used in 2010. The election of 2012 will most likely be the all-time battle of which party can “bank their ballots” early.

If politicians are worried that elections are too long, then consider adopting measures that many other nations around the world do—for example, have a set period of “legal campaigning” which lasts only two to three weeks prior to election day. No television campaign ads, no yard signs, no bumper stickers allowed before the designated time—that would more properly address the issue of “long campaigns,” but I dare say the response to that would be “it violates free speech!” And you’d be right.

But to take it out on voters to cast their fundamental right as citizens to participate by decreasing their chances to be heard? Is that a civic value North Carolinians want to promote when it comes to the fundamental right of voting?

And does it do either party any good to limit that opportunity? Ironically, the GOP may be passing a bill that enabled their success last year just to get back at the Democrats for the ‘08 victory. And the ultimate loser may be the individuals who we need the most: the voters of North Carolina.