Early voting usage in the first and subsequent years

I just got back from the Maryland Association of Election Officials (MAEO) meeting in Rocky Gap, MD. My assigned task was to sit on a panel on early voting with Connie Schmidt of the electioncenter (and past county clerk in Johnson County, KS) and Keith Long of the North Carolina Board of Elections.

The real job, I think, was to reassure county officials in Maryland that the approach of early voting in 2010 would not be a complete disaster. Maryland’s past experience with early voting–passed by the legislature in 2006 but ruled unconstitutional just over a week before the September 12, 2006 primary election–was not good. Clerks have also heard that early voting will increase their workload, never a welcome prospect, as well as tax their budgets at a time when all state and local officials are retrenching.

My own opinion, shared with the local officials as well as the state board, and one that Connie and Keith shared, is that Maryland is actually in a very good position to implement early voting. Their use of electronic pollbooks should reassure anyone that “double voting,” while virtually non-existent in states that currently use no-excuse absentee and in-person early voting, will be impossible. And because Maryland is a relatively centralized state, with a central registration database and a strong state board, I think the transition will be smooth. The bigger worry among officials is the choice to use a mix of voting technology–both paper (op scan) and DRE. Every single official I spoke to is anticipating long lines at the few DREs that remain for disabled voters but which can be used by anyone upon request.

A question I got from the state board and from a number of locals was how heavy I anticipated the use of early voting would be in the 2010 election. This is a devilishly hard question to answer, since it is so dependent on how and when early voting is implemented. You need to know:

  • What will be the mix of no-excuse absentee and in-person early voting?
  • How long will the early voting period be?
  • Will there be satellite locations and how convenient will they be?
  • And most important of all, how competitive are elections in your state?

My RA ran a quick set of comparisons in other states, and I thought the readership here might be interested in what he found:

Florida (2004): 30.1% (but subsequent midterm was only 16.3%)

Georgia (2004): 20.2% (drops to 17.9% in 06 midterm)

Illinois (2006): ~6% (but that jumped significantly in the 2008 election, which was the first on-year)

New Jersey (2008): only 6.5%(!)

Tennessee (1994): primary 14.8%, general 17.7%.

The variation is large, and depends on a combination of factors, including LEO support of EV options, type of election (especially the first time), and other local history and peculiarities.

Early voting has been widely publicized in MD because of the court case, and so I’d expect greater awareness (i.e., more like a Georgia than a New Jersey). But rates of early voting usually peak in major elections, so I suspect the real test of EV won’t come until congressional and gubernatorial elections in 2010.