Does Voting Early Prompt Hasty Choices?

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Nov. 6 is 32 days away, but for millions of Americans, there is no longer an Election Day.

Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia now have early voting, which is under way even now in eight states. Hundreds of thousands of votes have already been cast, most before this week's presidential debates or Friday's jobs report, and all ahead of the three future debates and any unforeseen October event that might test the mettle of a candidate.

Both major parties now encourage their supporters to vote early where possible, so they don't have to worry that they'll get to the polls on Election Day — or, perhaps, change their minds. Advisers to both presidential campaigns told The New York Times as many as 70 percent of this year's ballots may be cast before Nov. 6.

But is casting so many votes so early wise?

Early voting came about because of concern over voter turnout. Eighty percent of the registered voters in France cast ballots in their last presidential elections. In the United States, turnout was just 61 percent in 2008, and that's considered high for American elections.

Voting can be a chore. It takes time, and these days, nothing is more precious. It's hard to say, "Vote before or after work," to someone who works two jobs, has to get children to school, pick them up, and help with homework.

Chad Murphy, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington in Fredricksburg, Va., believes that making people wait until a certain date to vote is pointless.

"Most people have made up their minds," he says, "so why make them wait, stand in line at the polling places, and give up their valuable time in order to participate?"

But Francis Wilkinson, a journalist who became a Democratic campaign consultant and is now a member of the editorial board of Bloomberg News, says, "You don't have a jury decide a court case when it's just three-quarters of the way through. New information arrives every day."

Murphy believes a lot of new information — in attack ads — only dampens the desire to vote. "Early voting helps prevent fatigue induced by the flood of negativity," he says.

I like the ceremony of Election Day. Yes, people can stand in lines and get taken out of their routines. But perhaps because of that, I like to think it's a kind of civic ritual that nudges us to reflect on all we've heard and seen. We might strongly favor a candidate, but keep our minds open until everything has been said, and we take that moment on the same day to decide.

"You want to go through the motions of believing that the door is open until it closes," Wilkinson says, "and it doesn't close until Election Day."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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