Eleven days before the presidential election, the FBI reopened its investigation into Hillary Clinton’s handling of confidential emails. New information has come to light through a probe into former congressman Anthony Weiner’s sexting relationship with a 15-year-old girl.
The case against Clinton, which the FBI had effectively closed months ago (much to the chagrin of conservative critics), is suddenly alive again. It is sure to sway votes in the upcoming election—except for those votes cast before this new revelation.
Luckily for Clinton, millions of Americans cast their ballots before the FBI decided that maybe it wasn’t case closed, after all. Those votes are already in the bank. This is not the first time a presidential election has been rocked by an October surprise, but it is the first time in the era of widespread and excessive early voting.
The supposed value of giving voters several weeks in which to cast their ballot is that otherwise they might not have the chance to vote. But in today’s news media age, three weeks is a lifetime. Since voting began in some places, not only has the FBI relaunched a criminal investigation into the leading candidate but the trailing candidate has also been accused, multiple times, of sexual assault. Can anybody truly claim that those who voted in early October possessed all the facts they needed to make a truly informed decision?
Who Benefits From Early Voting?
One of the ironies regarding those who support excessive early voting is that many are the same people who decry the influence of money in politics. Along with television and radio ads, one of the most important uses of campaign money is the get out the vote (GOTV) effort. Campaigns hire workers to call people, give them rides, and generally encourage them to go vote. Guess what? They use voter data to show campaign workers exactly where they should, and more importantly should not, employ these efforts. Not all early votes are equal.
In the old days, there was one day when you could spend a bunch of cash on GOTV and try to pump up your candidate’s numbers. Now you can do it for a month. If your opponent has less cash on hand to run his operation, each and every one of those days gives you a very real and important advantage.
So who really benefits from long-term early voting? Do any of us really need three weeks to find the 20 minutes it takes to vote? Or are the real winners the incumbents and moneyed interests who can sustain a long-term GOTV effort that their opponent is helpless to match?
Are there nurses, doctors, truck drivers, and police officers who work long shifts and therefore might have trouble getting to the polls on the first Tuesday of November? Sure. It is reasonable to make accommodations for them. A secure absentee ballot is an option, as is perhaps allowing voting the weekend before the election.
A combination of those two ideas would surely create a timeframe conducive to facilitating voting for people with unique time challenges. It can be that simple. Allowing weeks for voting is not designed to help busy Americans—it is designed to help politicians with deep pockets.
The Bomb Has Dropped
As early voting has swept across the country, its opponents have regularly pointed to the potential of a game-changing moment happening after millions of people have cast their ballots. Now it has happened. The gravity of this situation is obscured by the incompetence and depravity of Donald Trump and his campaign. Voters who wish they had their vote for Clinton back in light of the recent unpleasantness will likely not tip the election. Trump will lose by his own devices.
But one can easily imagine a much closer general election in which the GOP had not nominated the least-liked candidate since Jesus ran against Barabbas. In such an election, a few thousand votes for or against Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio in Florida and Pennsylvania could well have tipped the scales. Whatever voter remorse may exist today might well have proved decisive among those who pulled the lever based in part on the clean bill of legal health the FBI gave Clinton in July.
This should serve as a wake-up call. Too much can happen in a month to allow the American people to make as important a decision as their vote until all the cards have been laid on the table. People of good faith on every side of American politics should accept that the excessive early voting so prevalent in our system is helping politicians, not voters.
Our elections, for better or worse, have always been vast narrative dramas. They have beginnings, middles, and often operatic endings. It is irresponsible to allow so many to vote during intermission.
Let’s Do This Ourselves
For the reasons stated above, incumbents have every incentive to maintain and even expand early voting. It is the ultimate home field advantage. It is unlikely that any serious attempt to arrest excessive early voting will emerge from office holders. But that doesn’t mean any of us have to vote early. In fact, we never should.
As participants in the oldest democracy the world now knows, we should challenge ourselves to find the time on Election Day. We should wait and stew and study, relishing the moment when our fully formed and educated opinion may be cast into the sea of our fellow citizens’ ruminations. We should revel in it, not get it done with as if we were getting the oil changed.
What is a vote? Is it a cog in a demographic wheel that turns inevitably towards progressive ideals? May we assume that certain types of people will vote certain ways and therefore fight over giving them more or less extended access to the ballot box? Maybe we could just fill out the ballots for them to save time.
Or is a vote a scared trust? Hasn’t the vote, since the Greeks scratched theirs on ostracon, always been the expression of power over government, of the fact that we consent to be governed? That is not a trust we should only execute if we happen to find the time.
There may be too many lessons from the 2016 election for our society to ever learn. Perhaps it has exposed the fundamental flaws of democracy. As a friend of mine recently mused, out of 350 million American people, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump turned out to be our A team.
Reopening, after early voting had begun, the criminal investigation into the woman very likely to be our next president should make this lesson clear.