What is the point of presidential debates, or even presidential campaigning in October?
Lots of people make that argument, based on what they say is historical evidence that debates and even a final blizzard of ads and campaign events don’t sway the electorate – that by a month before the election, voters have already made up their minds.
But, these days, you could make another, more mathematical argument: There is decreasing significance in presidential candidate debate because millions of people, even if they did change their minds, couldn’t do anything about it. They have already voted.
That’s right – Election Day is becoming increasingly irrelevant because of early voting, which is now allowed in 32 states and the District of Columbia. According to most estimates, 35-40 percent of voters nationwide will have cast their ballots before “Election Day,” and 85 percent are eligible to do it. Around 15 percent could have voted before the first presidential debate.
In 31 states, you don’t even need an excuse – a hardship like being unable to get to the polls due to sickness, business or military service – to vote early.
According to the Associated Press, as of last week, 29,400 voters had already cast ballots in North Carolina, and four years ago, 2.6 million people in the state had voted before Election Day. In Florida, nearly 4.6 million voters cast ballots before Election Day in 2008. In Colorado, more than 1.2 million absentee ballots have been requested.
What was that about an election being decided by a football stadium’s worth of people?
Both campaigns ought to be decrying this. Instead, they are encouraging it, trying to pump up the early vote. A number of news reports said Democrats, in the wake of President Obama’s poor performance in the first debate with Republican Mitt Romney, were frantically trying to “bank” early votes before people could change their minds.
The Romney campaign, while it reportedly does not have nearly the number of offices in swing states as Democrats, is working just as hard with phone banks and door-to-door contact to get people to vote now.
A plague on both their houses.
There are more than enough things that divide Americans. A single day on which the vast majority of citizens speak through the ballot to elect their leaders was one thing that brought us together.
It throws the claim that we all want informed voters out the window. As everybody – especially both campaigns – knows, tens of millions of voters don’t really start to pay close attention until the month before the election. That is supposedly why the debates are scheduled just weeks before what used to be a legitimate election day. It is why campaigns go into overdrive during the last few weeks before that day. This is a blatant effort to get people to vote when they are less informed.
It undermines the effect of events leading up to the election. It is possible that the unemployment numbers that just came out, showing a drop from 8.1 percent to 7.8 percent, would sway millions of voters. Perhaps they would think that lends some credibility to the president’s regular claim that “the policies we’ve put in place are working.”
But if they already voted for Romney, it won’t matter.
Or, perhaps some voters would be swayed by the Obama administration’s blatant disingenuousness over last month’s attack – on the anniversary of 9/11 – on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, in which four people were killed, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
The administration insisted for weeks that this was simply a spontaneous demonstration against a movie trailer that insulted the Muslim prophet, which got out of hand when it was suddenly hijacked by extremists.
Somehow, most everybody else knew that it was a terrorist attack, complete with non-spontaneous heavy weapons. And now, even the State Department has said there was no demonstration at all before the attack.
If that had happened under a Romney presidency, Democrats would be screaming, “Lies! Lies!”
But if those voters have already cast ballots for Obama, their change of mind doesn’t matter.
This is not a call to eliminate early voting. Obviously, there are some people for whom getting to the polls is difficult to impossible. But they are likely a tiny fraction of the electorate – surely less than 5 percent.
And even that ought to be compressed to a couple of weeks not a month or more. Those who care about voting can certainly mail their absentee ballots or do whatever needs to be done in that time frame.
Yes, a single election day is an arbitrary point in time. But, it is the ultimate in equal treatment. It requires everybody to “play by the same rules,” which Obama ceaselessly claims is his guiding philosophy.
If the day is not important, then why limit the voting window to a month or two? Why not let people vote whenever they feel like it? Why make them wait until after the conventions, when the candidates have been chosen well before that?
Election Day ought to have major national significance. With four of ten voters ignoring it, that is a dangerous dilution of significance.
Taylor Armerding is an independent columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org