Early voting has expanded democracy and I love that. But early voting could also become democracys biggest threat if, by political manipulation, it renders Election Day meaningless.
The temptation for manipulation exists because the stakes are huge. In 2008, the presidential candidate who won early voting in North Carolina is now sitting in the White House. Initial numbers from the State Board of Elections show that this year, 41 percent, or 2.7 million, of the states 6.6 million registered voters cast a ballot through early in-person and absentee voting. Of those, 47.6 percent were cast by Democrats, 31.6 percent by Republicans, 20.6 by unaffiliateds and .2 percent by Libertarians.
Early voting is popular nationally as well. The U.S. Election Project at George Mason University calculates that 29,868,367 million Americans have already cast ballots in 34 states and the District of Columbia. Thats 22 percent of the total presidential votes cast in 2008.
With so much now riding on early voting, good government-types ought to take a really close look at how it is changing electioneering.
Republicans have been accused of trying to manipulate early voting by reducing the number of voting days and shortening the hours of operation. Just as significant is the charge that Democrats manipulate early voting through the location of voting sites.
Republican Wake County commissioner Tony Gurley threw a fit earlier this year when he that learned that three of four additional early voting sites in Wake were sited in heavily Democratic areas. He threatened to cut off funding, but backed off and was chastised for leveling the charge.
Gurley, though, had a legitimate point. Those who argue that location doesnt have an impact ignore reality.
I live in northern Orange County. Downtown Hillsborough (the county seat) was my closest early voting site. No problem. I made the 15-minute drive on a Saturday.
However, if my closest polling place had been in Chapel Hill, a Democratic stronghold, I probably would have waited to vote until today. I avoid Chapel Hill because its a 35-minute trip and a tough place to park. If enough like-minded voters were to avoid early voting for similar reasons, the suppressed totals could affect the narrative and enthusiasm heading into Election Day.
The placement of early voting sites is even more critical in off-year elections, when tax issues such as bonds or new levies are frequently on the ballot.
I hope groups like the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, headed by Jane Pinsky, will take up early voting concerns as part of a focus on election integrity. The coalition has already called for a nonpartisan commission to handle redistricting, similar to the setup in Iowa, and I like that idea. Partisan-drawn districts are a primary reason that incumbents are darn near impossible to defeat.
A nonpartisan, rule-making approach to early voting has equal merit. I abhor the creation of yet another commission, but I dont see a way around it. The handling of investigations into finance violations by the campaigns of former Gov. Mike Easley and Gov. Beverly Perdue demonstrates that the State Board of Elections, whose members are political appointees, is not up to the job of nonpartisan judgment. A judicial panel, similar to the states Innocence Commission, might do the trick.
In addition to overseeing the operation and location of early voting sites, this panel could take up the emerging and sticky problem of aggressive campaigning at early voting sites. Enforcing the 50-foot buffer rule around the polls is the easy part. But outside that perimeter, who will decide the dividing line between voter intimidation and free speech?
Close, contested elections have become the norm. This years early voting numbers signal its time to ensure the integrity of the process so Election Day remains the most important day of a campaign.
Contributing columnist Rick Martinez (firstname.lastname@example.org) is news director at WPTF, NC News Network and SGRToday.com