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.