As Arkansas voters go to firehouses, school gymnasiums and senior centers to vote in today's primary election, they may be surprised to find shorter lines and fewer familiar faces than they're accustomed to. That's because nearly 100,000 Arkansans already have cast their votes over the past two weeks.
Arkansas has been aggressively pushing the concept of "early voting," in an effort to make it easier for people to find time for voting in their busy schedules. Technology is helping the effort. This year, the state launched Voter View Mobile, an application that allows users to find the nearest early-voting location from a smartphone in the same on-the-go way as they might find a restaurant or coffee shop.
Similar efforts to make voting easier are underway in other states. Some 32 states now allow people to vote early, and 29 allow people to vote absentee for any reason — so called "no excuse" laws that are tailored exclusively to voters' convenience. Iowa is making it possible for absentee voters to track their ballots like a FedEx package. And in Oregon, which also has a primary election today, all ballots now are cast through the mail. (Today is merely the day that ballots mailed in over the past few weeks are to be counted.)
All these measures undoubtedly have made the work of voting easier for citizens in many states. But they're also conspiring against one of the oldest and most tangible icons of democracy: the local polling place. As voting becomes an anyday activity, no longer reserved for a special trip on a certain Tuesday, the locations where neighbors have always gone to vote are becoming less important as crossroads of civic engagement.
That loss is something real, according to Kate Brown, the secretary of state in Oregon, where voting by mail started in 1981 and went statewide for all elections in 2000. "Voters say they miss sharing the voting experience with neighbors, going to the school or the church or the neighborhood firehouse in this rite of citizenship," Brown told a U.S. Senate committee a couple of weeks ago.
But voting by mail has helped to increase turnout and saved the state money, Brown says — and the social impact hasn't all been bad. "In Oregon, we have replaced one civic ritual with another," she says. "Families and groups of friends are gathering in homes, churches or libraries to discuss the issues and candidates on the ballot. Voters often tell me how they can now give more thought to filling out the ballot. They also like not having to stand in long lines at the polling place."
Catering to convenience
For the most part, voters seem to agree with Brown. They'd rather have the convenience of voting when and where they want than to be locked into planning Election Day around swinging by the local library, Elks lodge or wherever voting in their neighborhood precinct might happen.
In Michigan, which has been debating a move to early voting, a recent poll found overwhelming support for the idea. The poll, conducted by the Michigan League of Women Voters and the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks, found that 70 percent of respondents supported legislation that would allow no-excuse absentee and early voting. "Whether black or white, urban or rural, blue collar or white collar, old or young — voters support these common sense reforms which are tailored to accommodate people living in an increasingly busy world," says Dennis Denno, whose firm conducted the poll. "Based on these results, making voting easier and more convenient seems like a no-brainer."
For those who run elections, early voting isn't quite so simple. Amanda Dickens, voter registration supervisor in Pulaski County, Arkansas, says early voting can be a lot of extra work. That's because administrators have to be sure that early voting sites — usually county clerks' offices — are staffed well enough to match the expectations of convenience that early voters carry with them.
But Dickens also talks to a lot of voters who don't want to give up on their local polling place. One reason is because the early-voting locations use new electronic voting machines that some voters remain skeptical of. "There's a lot of people who would rather wait until Election Day to vote on a paper ballot rather than the electronic voting machine," Dickens says.
However, even die-hards who would never dream of voting on any day but the designated Tuesday benefit from early voting, Dickens says. "It keeps us from being that much busier on Election Day," she says. "Without it, I think Election Day would just be horrendous."