This election has tested our democracy unlike any other in recent memory. You’d have to look back to the convention walkouts of 1860 to find a presidential election that has so directly cut to the questions at the core of democracy — those fundamental principles which render our republican system legitimate. However, the seemingly existential weight of this election has allowed us to overlook procedural shifts in the way our democracy operates.
We no longer have anything remotely resembling an election day. Instead, early voting has turned our voting period into a month-and-a-half-long affair, hinting at results before the official day of voting even occurs. As a result, campaigns gain precious information to manipulate their strategy in the final days.
Days before the actual election, we already knew that Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 would probably win Nevada, based not on mercurial polls but on hard turnout numbers. (Her “firewall” in Clark County, home of Las Vegas, is up to around 70,000, a nearly insurmountable lead.) Accordingly, Clinton’s campaign has devoted enormous resources to the tight races in New Hampshire, which has no early voting, and Michigan in recent days, confident that Nevada is squarely in their grasp.
Maybe you think this is fine, that it’s all just a strategic issue and that the timing of voting is immaterial. But look at the larger picture: This is a tectonic shift in the way democracy operates. Is it a shift in the right direction?
First, we need to sketch out a model of decision-making in an ideal democratic order. This ideal type would have full turnout, with each citizen well-informed on the issues and voluntarily choosing to vote. (In Australia and Belgium, voting is compulsory.) Lines at the polls would be short; polling places would be plenty and their hours would be long. Election Day would be a national holiday, so as to allow the maximum number of people to get to the polls unencumbered by restrictive working hours.
When everyone can easily vote if they want to, information is the crucial variable. In a perfect system — far removed from our hyperpartisan reality — each voter evaluates each candidate without preconceived biases and makes their decision based on information shared by all members of the polity. Only under these conditions are voters deciding on the issues, rather than partisan loyalties.
The earliest date a citizen can cast their ballot through early voting is Sept. 23, in Minnesota. Here’s a brief list of all the information our proverbial Minnesotan missed if they chose to go to the polls that day: All three presidential debates, the release of the tape on which Donald Trump bragged about sexual assault, the chaos that engulfed the Republican Party thereafter, the rise and subsequent plateauing of Evan McMullin, the quasi-reopening and final closing of the quasi-investigation into Clinton’s private email server. You would even have missed Trump saying he might not honor the results of the election.
If you cast your ballot on Sept. 23 in St. Paul, and I cast my ballot tomorrow at the New Haven Free Public Library, you and I are basing our decisions on a fundamentally different set of information. We’re practically voting in different elections, with different candidates and a different set of possible outcomes. And if your vote isn’t determined by your weighing of the relative merits of the candidate’s positions, it’s likely based solely on the letter next to their name — on partisan considerations above informational ones.
Not only does early voting threaten informational parity crucial to a functioning democracy. Elections are a profound sort of civic reckoning, a national coming together once every four years to deliberate on the shape of our society in the years to come. That this reckoning occurs on a single day in November enhances the sanctity of the process, encouraging citizens to view it with a healthy reverence. All citizens going to the polls on the same day makes this shared experience part of the civic glue that holds the nation together. Turn this day into a 45-day slog and the nature of the ritual has incommensurately changed. In Oregon you can send your regular ballot in the mail, making profane a properly sacred act.
No self-respecting republic can allow early voting to the degree that the United States does. It undermines the integrity of our democracy, profoundly alters the meaning of a vote and entrenches our malignant partisan reality. Costs must be weighed against benefits, and in the case of early voting, the costs to the normal functioning of our democratic system are simply too high.
Noah Daponte-Smith is a junior in Berkeley College.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .