Thursday, September 5, 2013

Early Voting is a women’s issue

On September 4, 2013, I was among the many concerned citizens testifying at President Obama’s non-partisan Commission on Election Administration Testimony on behalf of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for Women . Let’s hope some real reform occurs as a result of this. From my testimony:

The Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for Women is committed to making voting easier in Pennsylvania. This is especially important if we are to increase participation in non-presidential year elections. If the people who came out in November 2012 had come out in 2010, we’d have a different congress and in Pennsylvania a different state legislature with major consequences for redistricting. People may be willing to wait in line for hours to vote for the President, but this generally doesn’t carry over to state legislators.

Although making voting easier impacts both men and women in a sense this is a women’s issue as women are the ones most likely to be juggling work and family and thus having trouble getting to the polls—especially, when their work place is far from their home or, as is increasingly the case, they are also juggling several part-time jobs.

Long lines disenfranchise voters who simply can’t take off more time from their jobs and have to leave the polls before casting a vote. This is a far greater threat to our democracy than in-person voter fraud which nonpartisan analyses have generally found to be extremely rare.

Charles Stewart Ill, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that the impact of lines is more likely to disenfranchise Blacks and Hispanics who waited an average of 20.2 minutes, compared with 12.7 minutes for whites. In the most populous areas --those with more than 500,000 voters in a county­-the wait time was more than double what it was in counties with fewer than 50,000 voters. Early voting and other measures for making voting easier such as no excuse absentee ballots will take the pressure off Election Day and reduce those lines.

The research about early voting is at this point inconclusive, but as more states move in this direction, we should have a better understanding of the impact. Much of the research was conducted in the early days of early voting and probably does not reflect the current political landscape. There are also so many permutations. It seems to matter what early voting is combined with. Barry C. Burden and Kenneth R. Mayer, professors of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found that early voting is most likely to increase turn-out when combined with same-day registration.

Even if it does not increase turn-out, making it easier for citizens to vote and taking the pressure off election day --thus reducing those long lines—has got to be a good thing in itself.

Another by-product of giving voters more flexibility may be that voters will be under less pressure and might spend more time on the down-ballot races often ignored by voters . Early voting along with mail-in voting and no–excuse absentee ballots would give voters more time to consider their choices in these low profile but nonetheless very important races.

Clearly political leaders are acting on the belief that early voting expands access. Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia offer early voting. A recent report from the Brennan Center in its round-up of states passing laws to expand access reports that “At least 19 states[16] have introduced bills that would newly introduce, or expand, opportunities for early in- person voting.”

Even in Pennsylvania (which according to a recent Pew Charitable Trust study, has been found to be among the least voter-friendly states) two early voting bills (HB 361 and HB 548) have been proposed in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and it is my understanding one will soon be introduced in the senate.

As President Obama said at his second inauguration. "Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote." It’s time to give voters the flexibility to participate in the electoral process, even if they cannot be there on Election Day.

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