Absentee and Early Voting
The idea of “banking” votes with absentee ballots is attractive, but be aware of its limitations in voter engagement projects. Mobilizing turnout to early voting polling places may be a better bet.
More and more states are offering opportunities for voting that don’t require going to the polls on Election Day. Fifteen states allow any registered voter to cast an absentee ballot. Sixteen states offer polling locations that are open before Election Day. One state, Oregon, conducts all its elections by mail. Check with your local state and county election authorities to find out what the rules are where you work, or take a look at the Election Reform Information Project’s comprehensive online guide.
Conventional campaigns often push absentee voting to their supporters to “get their vote in the bank.” The idea is that people who have already voted can’t be swayed by last minute events or negative advertising. Moreover, every identified supporter who votes early is one less person the campaign has to contact during GOTV work. Early voting reduces the workload at the end of the campaign.
But in marginalized communities, absentee voting has downsides:
- The process usually involves filling out and sending in a form, receiving the absentee ballot in the mail, and returning the absentee ballot on time and properly filled out and signed before Election Day. It is precise and legalistic. That is a lot of steps for people who don't have a ton of practice in voting.
- Extremely well-financed field campaigns sometimes can track every stage of the process, learning who has requested a ballot and who has cast it. Then they take those people off their turnout lists. Campaigns with less resources may find themselves unable to handle the crush of data, so they don’t get the benefits that go with absentee voting.
- Some voters, especially inexperienced ones, will get absentee ballots and then not cast them. You have to be organized to find these people and turn them out.
- Voting is something new voters learn to participate in. Going to the polling place on Election Day is a concrete new experience that gives the act more meaning to people who have not been part of a culture of electoral participation. Absentee voting simply doesn’t create the same satisfying experience.
For these reasons, voter engagement projects should think hard about whether to push absentee voting in their campaigns. On the other hand, everyone working on the project who can do so should vote by absentee ballot –they may be too busy on Election Day to make it to the polls.
More and more states and cities are likely to move to absentee ballots because voting by mail is cheaper to manage. Community organizations need to become prepared to train new voters in the procedures or some of those less acculturated to citizenship are likely to drop out of the process.
Early voting polling places provide opportunities for voter engagement
Early voting polling places offers many of the advantages of absentee voting, and none of the problems. Mobilizing your membership, base and volunteers on days when early voting polls are open eases the GOTV crunch by spreading intense turnout work over time. Take advantage of the opportunities offered by early voting:
- Why not hold a rally near a polling place (at a legal distance, of course) to publicize your issue – and encourage everyone who attends to walk by to vote immediately?
- In San Francisco, organizers of homeless people have led marches to the Department of Elections to get their votes cast then and there.
- If there is an early voting place in a neighborhood in which you are organizing, you can door-knock, phone and/or lit drop to publicize the location – and your issue.