Much ado about nothing? Debate over early voting hours in Florida neglects most empirical research

There is a heated debate going on in the Florida state legislature over a permanent extension to early voting hours.

In the 2008 election, in the face of long lines, Governor Charlie Crist issued an executive order extending early voting hours to 12 hours/day, 4 hours longer than mandated by law.  Now the legislature is considering a bill which would allow this for all elections.

The political debate is breaking down along predictable partisan lines, with Democrats supporting the extension and Republicans opposed.  Legislators are responding to voting returns that show substantially more Democrats took advantage of the early voting option in November 2008.  According to news reports, Republicans are concerned that a permanent extension of hours would “give Democrats an even bigger advantage.”

This debate, however, is much ado about nothing. Florida legislators are falling prey to a very common, but very wrong, fallacy about early voting.

Just because one demographic or political group–say for the sake of argument Republicans–use absentee ballots more frequently than another group–say Democrats–does not mean that more Republicans vote overall.  All it means is that more Republicans turn in their ballots by mail and fewer show up on election day.  Similarly, if more Democrats vote early in person, all it means is that fewer will vote at the precinct on election day.

My friend and colleague Bob Stein of Rice University has been studying the relationship between early in person voting and partisanship for more than a decade, and he has consistently shown that early voting conveys no partisan advantage. It only benefits the party or candidate with more money and more organizational resources.  Adam Berinsky has also shown that early voting does not change the composition of the electorate–it only moves people around from the election day category into the early voting category.  Finally, I have shown in a number of works that early voting of any variety increases turnout by at most a few percentage points.

Early in person voting in Florida does not change the mix of voters.  It does not increase the size of the electorate.  And it does not benefit one party or the other.  There may be good reasons not to extend early voting hours in Florida, but partisan advantage is not one of them.