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Reinforcing Voting as a Communal Act


Voting, while certainly an individual act, is also a communal one that includes the intention to impact the larger community. Historically, that communal reality was reinforced in the voter’s mind on Election Day, the single day on which people voted, whether the election be a primary, special, or general election. With voting already underway in 39 states, it is worth considering whether there are institutional and structural ways to keep alive that sense of ”the important communal civic event of a single election day.”[i]

In the past, on Election Day voters would join their friends and neighbors at their polling places, which were for the most part located in civically-oriented buildings, either schools or churches. Campaigns focused their energies on a single day, and organized volunteers to get people to the polls on that day. All activity was geared toward the day of decision-making when voters would cast their votes. These features combined to remind voters that they were casting votes that would choose representatives and policies not only for themselves, but for the entire community.

Over the past twenty-five years, various innovations in the voting process have changed that pattern so that by 2004, nearly one in four votes took place on a day other than Election Day.[ii] Absentee balloting, formerly reserved for those people with a clear reason--usually absence from home or some other inability to come to the polling place--is now available in many states for anyone who requests an absentee ballot. In-person early voting is also increasingly available. Oregon and Washington mandates vote-by-mail, and other states are currently experimenting with vote-by-mail for some types of elections.

The main reason for the changes from single day, single location elections is the convenience of the voter. The ubiquity of cell phones should be enough proof that as a society we do not like to be tied to a single location. Work schedules, family arrangements, and personal preferences all provide fodder for arguing against a single day for voting. For many, underlying the convenience rationale is the assumption that a more convenient system will increase voter participation. However, as logical as that rationale seems, the data appear to show that participation does not increase; rather, the people who would have voted anyhow are just voting at different times and places.[iii]

Despite the lack of evidence of increased participation, these more convenient forms of voting are no doubt here to stay. Sufficient numbers of nonvoters cite convenience-related reasons for their failure to vote[iv] to quiet any move to return to the systems in place twenty years ago. Instead, what follows are some suggestions about institutional means to strengthen the sense of shared civic responsibility while retaining the increased convenience that we’ve come to assume:

Reduce the number of days for early voting: While a single day for voting is inadequate to accommodate contemporary work schedules and lifestyles, it seems overly-generous for people to have the option to begin voting six to eight weeks before an election. What is the added value of voting more than a week prior to the traditional Election Day? In addition to adding costs and allowing people to vote without the benefits of information coming at the end of full campaigns, these long voting periods can dilute focus on the election.

Establish a Voting Holiday: As with Independence Day and Veterans’ Day, turning voting day (at least for general elections) into a holiday would provide a more intense focus on the civic nature of voting. Many work conflicts would be eliminated, and adding a couple of voting days before the holiday itself would be sufficient to do away with most scheduling conflicts. As a nation, we are used to using holidays to signify important cultural events, and voting combines many of the values celebrated by other holidays.

Locate all polling places in civic buildings: While I have not noticed any trends toward voting in private establishments, it is worth a reminder that the location of voting impacts the ways in which people vote. Some research indicates that “environmental cues” may influence the way that voters behave. The study looked at the impact of voting in a school or voting in a church, and found that polling locations have a small but measurable influence on votes. If that is true, then paying close attention to the types of buildings used as polling places is an important way to reinforce the idea that voting is a communal act.

We should be deliberate about retaining the structural reminders of the communal nature of voting, even while embracing convenience. There is some irony in the fact that voting used to take place on a single day, and then the populous was willing to wait for weeks and months for the official results of that single day of voting. Now, we spend weeks voting, but then expect the results of all that voting to be available before we go to sleep on what is now the the last day of a voting season. Part of the reason we are eager to learn the outcome is that we know that all members of society will be impacted by the results of elections. Our structures need to remind us of that fact while we are in the act of deliberating about our choices and casting our votes, not only as we await the tally of everyone else’s votes.

[i] John C. Fortier, Absentee and Early Voting: Trends, Promises, and Perils. The AEI Press, Washington, D.C., 2006, p. 5.

[ii] Id., p. 19.

[iii] Id., p. 42,45.

[iv] Id., p. 47.

Terri Enns has been part of the Election Law @ Moritz team since the beginning of the project. Prior to coming to Moritz to teach in the Legislation Clinic, Ms. Enns served as Legal Counsel to the Ohio Senate Minority Caucus, where she regularly delved into Ohio's statutory oversight of campaigns and elections, working with election law both as it was being created and as it was applied. Enns has provided input for a variety of panels focused on election issues, including Campaigning with Character for the Bowhay Institute for Legislative Leadership Development; Current Controversies in Election Law for a panel at Marshall University, and Don't be Disenfranchised: Know Your Voter Rights and Election Law at the Feminist Majority Foundation's Get Out Her Vote 2008: Ohio Summit. View Complete Profile


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