Early voting may decrease turnout

Casting ballots

America has one of the worst turnout rates for general elections in the developed world and early voting may not help

There are just 46 days to go before the most divisive presidential election in living memory draws to a close. With polls showing a tightening race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump ahead of their first presidential debate on September 26th, questions about voter turnout loom large. How successful, pundits ask, will the candidates be in persuading their supporters to get out and vote for them on November 8th?

But in many states voting is already underway. Some 5,000 postal votes have already been cast in North Carolina. On September 23rd early voting begins in Minnesota, with New Jersey and South Dakota following on September 24th. In total, 37 states now allow early voting in some form or another. In 2012, 42m people — nearly one-third of all ballots cast — were submitted before election day itself, up from less than 7% of voters in 1992.

At just 54% of the voting-age population, America has one of the worst turnout rates for general elections in the developed world. Proponents of early voting — which is not cost-free as polling stations have to stay open longer — hope that widening the voting window to multiple days will help to increase turnout. But in a study published in 2013, Barry Bunden and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, demonstrated otherwise. After controlling for demographic factors such as age, income, race and education as well as the competitiveness of the election at hand, the authors found that for every ten days that a state allowed early voting, turnout decreased by 1 percentage point. In total, they find that the likelihood that someone will turnout at an election was reduced by around four percentage points.

By way of an explanation, the authors posit that early voting removes election day of its stimulating effect on the electorate (ie, by stretching a single-day voting window across several weeks). This pushes marginal voters, who need all the encouragement they can find to vote, away from the ballot box. Indeed, early voters tend to be older and more educated than the electorate as a whole — the very group that have the highest turnout rate (see chart).

If early voting does reduce turnout, does it have the ability to affect the outcome of an election? Perhaps so. Further research needs to be undertaken into how the dampening effect of early voting might affect some demographic groups more than others, and the concomitant effect on the partisan vote share. If America wants to increase its dismal showing in elections, it should instead reduce the barriers to voter registration. The same study demonstrated that states that allow election-day registration increased turnout by several percentage points, helping to offset the negative effect of early voting in those states that have it.

This article was first published on economist.com. Sign up to our newsletters here.