When discussing both low turnout and low opportunity, I am reminded of John Dewey, who wrote, “the cure for the ailments of democracy is more democracy.” It is in this spirit that I am glad the General Assembly has before it several bills to expand people’s access to the polls through early voting.

SB 65 would allow people to vote by mail if they have a medical issue that keeps them from voting on election day or in person. SB 137 and HB 258 are similar bills, both allowing citizens with disabilities to vote by mail or in person absentee.

The most forward thinking of these bills is HB 118. This bill would allow for no-excuse early voting for 12 working days prior to the election, including two Saturdays. It would also allow county boards of elections to establish longer early voting periods if they so choose.

Early Voting Bullet Points

  • SB65, SB137, and HB258 small but good steps forward (increase absentee voting for those with medical issues)
  • HB118 is a bigger step forward: allows for no-excuse early voting 12 days prior to an election.
  • Early voting especially helpful for people who work non-traditional hours, are responsible for childcare, or any other issue that may make it harder to get to the polls.
  • Can also lead to shorter lines on election day and help to identify voter registration issues with enough time to resolve them.

Low Turnout in Kentucky, Nationwide

Much has been said about the underwhelming level of voter turnout in America. Turnout in Kentucky leaves something to be desired as well. In the 2016 general election, our state’s turnout was 59.1%. In 2015, it was 30.6%. And in 2014, it was 45.9%.

This is higher than the voter turnout rate nationally (58% in 2016 and 36.4% in 2014, which was the lowest in 70 years), although this was due to larger states like California, Texas, and New York having even lower turnout rates than Kentucky. When compared on a state-by-state basis, Kentucky is in the bottom third for turnout.

It can be hard to compare voter turnout in different areas due to differences in competitive races, down-ballot races, or ballot measures that come before voters. Still, our low turnout rates should be concerning. I do not believe the people of Kentucky are any less democratically minded than those living in other states. One problem that Kentuckians face is there is little opportunity available to cast a ballot. Polls are open just 12 hours on election day, and while you can vote absentee, you must present a reason.

Early Voting

Photo by mandamonium

In an early voting system, citizens can cast a ballot prior to an election, typically without an excuse. Proponents argue that this makes the voting process more convenient, increasing both turnout and the overall experience of casting a ballot. If people have more opportunities to vote, they will be more likely to do so.

Early voting is especially helpful for people who work non-traditional hours, are responsible for childcare, or any other issue that may make it harder to get to the polls. This can also lead to shorter lines on election day and help to identify voter registration issues with enough time to resolve them.

Currently 37 states and D.C. have some form of early voting. Three of these states (Colorado, Washington, and Oregon) utilize a mail-in ballot system, where citizens can mail in their votes early without showing up in person to a polling location. In the other 34 states, you must vote in person. The average early voting period in the US begins 22 days before an election and lasts for 19 days.

Early voting is also popular. In the 2016 general election, over 47 million people cast their ballots early, which is over a third of the more than 130 million total votes cast. This is over 10 times the percentage that voted early (non-absentee) in 1996, just 20 years early. The early voting capital of the US may be Texas, where in 2012, nearly 2/3 of Texans cast their ballots early. Texas even sets up polling places in non-traditional locations such as malls or grocery stores.

Concerns and Responses

There are, of course, some concerns about early voting. Some argue that early voting gives people less time to make an informed decision. Voting early means you may not hear the last debate or see the last week’s news coverage before your ballot is cast. However, early voters are more likely to be strong partisans who have made up their minds early or have been mobilized by state or local parties, and are not likely to be swayed in the last days of an election.

During primary season, there is another concern. Many citizens voted early for candidates who would drop out before an election. This was especially visible in the 2016 Republican primary. Marco Rubio, for example, received nearly 120,000 votes after he had already dropped out of the race. We do not know exactly how many of those were early votes, but it is likely a large percentage. Those voters may have voted differently had they known Rubio would no longer be a candidate.

Another concern deals with logistics. Some county clerks fear that this would cause them to buy more machines and hire more staff. However, since absentee voting with an excuse is already legal in Kentucky, the infrastructure is already in place. If you can spread out voters over a larger period, you may even need fewer machines as crowds on election day would be smaller.

Still others argue that the availability of early voting does not greatly affect overall turnout, and that early voting serves only those who would vote anyway. However, even small differences in turnout can matter a great deal. A few dozen votes either way can dramatically change the outcome of an election, especially at the local level.

This is more important because that small change in turnout may be from minority communities. A lack of early voting hurts minority turnout, and restrictions on early voting in North Carolina were deemed unconstitutional for disproportionately affecting African Americans.

Even if the only people who vote early would have voted anyway and there is no increase in overall turnout, it makes the voting experience easier, more convenient, and more accurate. Surely those are worthy goals apart from turnout.

Going Forward

Early voting is a great step forward for improving voter turnout. Voting more often can make voters more informed, make elected officials more accountable, and strengthen our democracy. I would urge you to support SB 65, SB 137, HB 258, and especially HB 118, currently in the House Elections, Constitutional Amendments, and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee.

Still, there are more steps to be taken. Same day registration, longer hours on election day, and more polling locations would all help. Six states currently have authorized automatic voter registration (though Oregon is the only one to have implemented it so far). Kentucky should consider such reforms in the future.

Voting is important. As a democracy, we should do everything in our power to make sure everyone can participate in the process. It’s good to see lawmakers exploring these options.

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Photo by Phillip Pessar

Neal Turpin

Dr. Neal Turpin is a recent PhD graduate of the University of Louisville’s School of Urban and Public Affairs, where he focused on public policy and participation, democratic structures, and efficiency. He enjoys spending time with his wife, Sara, working out at the Southeast YMCA, where the two of them met, and teaching Sunday school at Buechel Park Baptist Church. Neal also has an appreciation for trivia, movie scores, and the Muppets.