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The Folly of Early Voting in Presidential Primaries

Donald Trump has been generally helped by early voting—the practice by which states permit voters to vote in advance—sometimes long in advance—of election day. In Louisiana Ted Cruz lost badly among those who voted early but almost made up the difference on those who voted on the day of the primary.

By election today citizens had more information about Trump. There had been a recent debate where the real estate developer was thought to have done badly and his sharp business practices had been exposed. Moreover, local media summarize the candidates and the state of the race right before election day. Particularly in a world of rational ignorance, where citizens have few incentives to be informed, it is wise to use the rhythms of the election calendar to make voters as richly informed as possible. Otherwise, the structure of elections may systematically favor charlatans– candidates who may make a splash to gain attention, but upon examination have fraudulent policies and deeply flawed characters.

Eugene Kontorovich and I made a general case against early voting, but it is even a worse idea in the primary context. Here is a bit of our argument

In elections, candidates make competing appeals to the people and provide them with the information necessary to be able to make a choice. Citizens also engage with one another, debating and deliberating about the best options for the country. Especially in an age of so many nonpolitical distractions, it is important to preserve the space of a general election campaign—from the early kickoff rallies to the last debates in October—to allow voters to think through, together, the serious issues that face the nation.

As Russell Berman recently noted, it is even more problematic to allow early voting in primaries than in a general election. Making a rational choice in a primary depends on bits of information that one gets about candidates in previous primaries. One important bit is their level of support. A voter might well not want to stick with a candidate who was found to have no realistic chance. Indeed, candidates regularly withdraw after earlier primaries. If a citizen has voted for one of the candidates who has dropped out in the intervening time, he has wasted his vote.

Early voting advocates are obsessed with increasing voter participation. But equally—if not more—important is having the best-informed electorate possible. In this area, as in campaign finance, electoral reformers seem blind to the importance of creating structures that are likely to make democracy an instrument of wise, or at least wiser, decisions. They instead push for a kind of electoral purity, like perfect participation or equality, that is an illusion.

Reader Discussion

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on March 09, 2016 at 11:55:32 am

"...electoral reformers seem blind to the importance of creating structures that are likely to make democracy an instrument of wise, or at least wiser, decisions."

Oh, I suspect they can see quite clearly. It is neither wise nor to their advantage to have an educated electorate Nor one properly vetted via ID, etc. One must ask, "how is early voting accomplished" and what does this early voting mechanism enable. Could it be that it is as prone to voter fraud as is in mail ballots and automatic voter registration?

Hmmm!!!!

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gabe
on March 09, 2016 at 14:18:33 pm

In Oregon, we use vote-by-mail. The earlier mailed-in ballots tend to lean Republican while the late polling booth voting tends to lean Democrat. We sometimes see conservative leads during the early mail-ins, and then the statists win because of the last minute booth votes.

The net effect of early voting seems to be that when one side is ahead early the other side tends to ramp up its efforts towards the end, perhaps more than they would if the early votes had been on their side.

I would image that that tends to affect the distribution of effort and funds for getting out the votes.

I'm not so sure that early voting is seriously impacted by the general lack of knowledge on the part of the voters. Our statistically average voter is not well informed, and having a few more weeks of public discussion doesn't change that. Most electoral decisions are pretty simple anyway.

Late voting, however, gives the propagandists and other social engineers more time to practice their trade. That kind of influence is a negative for liberty. The influence of those folks is more powerful than a lot of people think.

The late-breaking negative information is generally held until just before election day anyway so that there isn't time to refute it. Any elective process can and will be gamed. It's just a matter of how effective the gaming will be, and how it can be prevented or minimized.

So it's kind of a wash.

If I were to reform the voting system there are other voting reforms that would be much more fruitful to pursue, such as implementing +1,-1 evaluative voting for some offices.

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Scott Amorian
on March 09, 2016 at 18:26:01 pm

Scott:

Good points.

Do you Oregonians have any concerns about voter fraud with your early and mail-in balloting?

Just curious.

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gabe
on March 10, 2016 at 11:31:13 am

If we did have concerns, we wouldn't have vote-by-mail.

The issue of fraud actually comes up with the ballot box voting. Some of us wonder why the big flurry of last minute voting at the polling stations comes up so heavily Democrat. Perhaps there is fraud. Perhaps Republicans are just less likely to put things off until the last possible minute. Perhaps Democrats are more easily influenced by social engineers, since social engineering takes more time to put into effect than does sound decision making. I tend to think that all three of those perhaps's come into play.

With mail-in ballots the voting process is decentralized, so fraud would have to be more with individual ballots. With ballot box voting the process is centralized, so if fraud were to occur it would affect large groups of ballots and have a more powerful effect with less effort by the fraudsters.

We need a few good proven cases of fraud before we can be concerned with it, and we aren't seeing those.

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Scott Amorian

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.