Early voting is widely viewed as an advance in ballot access that provides a fairer election process for those who have trouble getting to the polls on Election Day.
But the ups and downs of the 2016 primary season certainly raise questions about employing an early voting system during a volatile nominating process in which candidates abruptly drop out, leaving their supporters with a wasted vote.
As the issue of votes for dropouts gains prominence, the Wall Street Journal has crunched the numbers and found that a combined 1.4 million Republican votes were wasted since the primary/caucus season began in February.
In three states – Vermont, Missouri and Arkansas – the number of votes cast for a candidate who had dropped out by Election Day exceeded the margin of victory for the winner in those states.
Jeb Bush leads this dubious list with 159,000 meaningless votes cast for the former Florida governor. He is followed by Dr. Ben Carson and Sen. Marco Rubio. But tens of thousands of “blackhole ballots,” as the WSJ labels them, also were collectively cast for Rand Paul, Chris Chistie, Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina, and Rick Santorum.
Early voting is mostly responsible for this phenomenon as some states offer weeks of opportunity to cast a ballot before their Election Day. In Arizona, a month of early voting resulted in dropout Marco Rubio gaining a third-place finish last week even though he was no longer in the race.
In Mississippi, early returns showed Rubio in fourth place in a three-man race as Ben Carson was outpolling the Florida senator though the neurosurgeon had bowed out.
The question becomes: Why should we have weeks of early voting during a primary season in which candidates drop out at fairly unpredictable moments?
Sure, some voters cast their ballot on Election Day for an ex-candidate out of stubborn loyalty. But a voter who casts a ballot three or four weeks prior is taking a risk, and has no recourse if their ballot subsequently becomes immaterial.
In most states, the primary consists of a one-issue ballot on the presidency – and that is the case in all caucuses. In many cases, Election Day conveniently takes place on a Saturday. So, a slow process with long lines is not much of an issue (unless you live in Arizona). There is little need to offer many days of voting in advance in order to make the process run smoother on Election Day.
For those who have problems making it to the polls on a designated date, two or three days of early voting should suffice.
That’s obviously a better system than having 1.4 million ballots go down a black hole.