Rethinking the early vote

Rethinking the early vote
New restrictions will force campaigns to rethink their strategy in 2012.

Have an early vote plan from a competitive 2010 contest in Florida? It may not even be worth looking at in preparation for this fall, strategists warn.  

The early vote landscape has changed markedly in battlegrounds across the country with several states over the past year shortening the window to cast in-person early votes. Among them, the swing states of Florida and Wisconsin. The changes will have campaigns in those states—and nationally—going back to the drawing board when it comes to the early vote, and likely having to spend additional resources to educate voters on the changes.  

“You have to divert resources and you have to plan ahead,” says Phillip Stutts, a Republican strategist. Stutts served as national director of the RNC’s 72-hour task force in 2004.

The key questions campaigns should be asking, according to Stutts: “Do we hold money back now to put it into getting out the vote for early voting? Or, if [the early voting window] condenses, can we use more of that money for TV, for radio? Maybe we run a couple more mail pieces, or hire more staff?”   

In 2011, seven states passed laws restricting the early voting window: Florida, Wisconsin, Georgia, Maine, Tennessee, West Virginia and Ohio—the state that saw the most contentious and uncertain debate over the changes.  

The Ohio measure would have shortened the early voting window from 35 days to 17 days. Earlier in the year, critics gathered enough signatures to get a repeal effort on this fall’s ballot putting implementation of the law on hold. But Ohio’s state Senate has now passed a repeal of the measure on its own and the state House could do the same.     

“Unfortunately, you can’t brand your early vote program when there’s a high level of uncertainty and when the rules keep changing,” says Stutts.

State election officials are now also more reliant than ever on the parties and individual campaigns to educate voters about the changes, he notes. With campaigns reliably dedicating sizable amounts of time and resources for early vote outreach and voter education, states and localities are spending little on the process. It places added pressure on already resource-strapped campaigns to ensure their voters are aware of the rules and motivated at the right time.        

“It becomes an issue for campaigns to own the process of educating voters,” says Democratic Strategist Steve Schale, who ran President Obama’s Florida campaign in 2008. “Quite honestly, if campaigns don’t educate voters they are not going to get educated about these changes. [Election officials] probably don’t have enough of a budget to do it and there probably won’t be a lot of media coverage about it.”

The legislative debate over shortening early voting windows has sparked ideological battles in states across the country as critics have accused Republican lawmakers of attempting to shift the rules to disadvantage Democratic and minority voters.      

As campaigns scramble to keep up with the changes, the biggest strategic decision will likely be over how much emphasis to place on in-person early vote given the campaign’s available resources. If the decision is made internally that early vote needs to be a major priority, especially in a state where the voting window has changed, Schale suggests getting an early vote director in place ASAP so they can start living and breathing early voting.

“[In 2008], we had a guy whose only job it was to wake up in the morning and think about in-person early voting,” he says.   

As for the expected volume of early voting this fall, Michael McDonald, an expert at George Mason University, doesn’t want to offer a prediction, but ventures that longer wait times are a distinct possibility in states implementing changes.

“We saw substantially long lines in some states in 2008, not just on Election Day but also during the early voting period,” McDonald says. “Even without the early voting restrictions in Florida, the campaigns need to address this potential issue because you could have people who decide not to vote because the lines are too long.”

For one small way that campaigns might be able to mitigate the impact, McDonald points to Georgia where a number of counties have started to report voting wait times in real-time online. It could hold some promise for local campaigns that latch onto the info and find a way to effectively disseminate it to supporters.

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