Secretary of State Mark Ritchie recently suggested that Minnesota should institute a system of "early voting." This is an ill-conceived idea. Minnesota has a system of absentee voting that, with one small legislative change, would be far superior to early voting.
Currently, Minnesota law supposedly allows absentee voting only for people who claim one of the following reasons for needing an absentee ballot:
• Absence from their precinct on Election Day.
• Illness or disability.
• Service as an election judge in another precinct on Election Day.
• Religious discipline or religious holiday or observance.
• Eligible emergency declared by the governor or quarantine declared by the federal or state government.
Ritchie's predecessor, Mary Kiffmeyer, heavily promoted absentee voting -- especially "in-person" absentee voting at a local election office, which is easier for most people than by-mail absentee voting. In doing so, she emphasized the facts that no one actually checks to see whether voters meet absentee ballot eligibility criteria and that the law requiring an excuse to vote absentee is basically unenforceable.
Nevertheless, citizens may not understand this. Consequently, as Ritchie has noted correctly, the current law may be a deterrent to some people.
Yet "early voting" systems such as Ritchie has suggested have major flaws compared to our current absentee voting system.
For one, an early voting system does not allow voters to change their minds after casting their ballots like the current absentee voting system does. Many more voters change their minds than most people recognize -- and not just for dramatic reasons such as a U.S. Senate candidate dying in a plane crash a few days before an election, as happened in Minnesota in 2002.
Much new information becomes available about candidates in the days just prior to Election Day, and voters should have the right to change their votes based on new information. An early voting system would not allow this: Voters in such systems are stripped of the right to change their votes, once their votes are cast, because their ballots have already been placed in the ballot box and counted, with no way to track them back to the voters.
Legislators should be especially wary of coupling an early voting system with the state's current absentee voting system. There would probably be great distress caused for people who participated in early voting and were later told they could not change their votes while others who had voted by absentee ballot were told they could change their votes.
Another downside to early voting systems is that the running vote totals approaching Election Day are knowable and tracked closely by politicos and the media. With all the reports from early-voting states this year, media outlets were basically calling the presidential race before Election Day. This is a certain vote suppressor. Some people seeing early vote-total reports and believing their votes won't matter probably stay home rather than vote on Election Day.
A clear weakness of early voting, if implemented in Minnesota, would be the after-the-fact discovery of some voters' ineligibility. We already have this problem with our loose Election Day registration procedures (same-day voter registration with no ID requirement). Expanding the looseness to the weeks of voting prior to Election Day would not be an improvement. In our current absentee voting system, it is possible to verify voters' eligibility before their ballots are counted on Election Day with all the other ballots.
Consequently, a superior legislative reform would be simply to change the law to allow absentee voting without an excuse. This small tweak to the current absentee ballot system would increase voters' right to ballot access and preserve their right to election integrity.
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Kent Kaiser is a professor of communication at Northwestern College in Roseville, and a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. He previously served as communications and voter outreach director for the Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State under Republican Mary Kiffmeyer and Democrat Mark Ritchie. This recommendation appears in CAE's 2009 report "No Longer a National Model: 15 Recommendations for Fixing Minnesota Election Law and Practice."