By Cristina Francisco-McGuire, Progressive States Network

The 2008 early vote proved beneficial to progressives, with self-identified Democrats making up a disproportionate share of the early vote. Barack Obama's success in engaging the Democratic base and, in particular, targeting early voters was especially evident in the fact that, though 80% of first-time early voters in 2008 had voted at a polling place on previous Election Days, nearly half of the same group had never taken advantage of early voting in any of the previous four federal elections. Certain demographics were more likely to benefit from early voting -- for example, urban and African-American voters constituted a larger share of the early vote than the non-early vote, presumably to avoid notoriously long lines that are pervasive in predominantly urban and/or African-American districts on Election Day or to take advantage of the flexibility inherent in early voting by casting a ballot when their work/family schedule permits. Though non-early voters supported both Obama and John McCain at an even 47%, Obama held the edge among early voters, garnering 52% of the vote. Thus, it comes as no surprise that, with a series of victories on voter ID legislation under their belt, conservatives are now setting their sights on restricting access to early voting in swing states -- a move that targets historically disenfranchised communities just in time for the 2012 election.

Early voting allows registered voters the opportunity to cast a ballot before Election Day, whether in person at designated early voting locations or through absentee mail ballot, and helps to both alleviate long lines at the polls and, in some cases, cut costs for election administration by allowing county officials to open fewer voting precincts on Election Day and expediting the voting process. Most legislative efforts are currently aimed at restricting in-person absentee voting. Bills that halve the number of in-person early voting days and eliminates Sunday voting has already been signed into law in Florida and Wisconsin, while similar bills in Ohio and North Carolina are currently being debated:

  • More than half of all votes in Florida during the 2008 election were cast early or by absentee ballot. Then-Governor Crist actually extended the early voting hours after millions of people lined up to vote early, some waiting hours to cast their ballots. Though many wanted to avoid the long lines and other debacles that notoriously characterized the 2004 elections, Obama's ground operation in the state encouraged early voting by bringing movie stars like Matt Damon into Tampa for early-voter rallies and holding drum-line marches in Miami's predominantly black communities. Overall, 1.1 million African American voters cast ballots in the state, and 96% of those votes went to Obama.  Obama won the state by a margin of less than 240,000 votes, thanks in part to the 54% of African American voters who cast a ballot at early voting sites.  
  • In North Carolina -- where Obama won by less than 15,000 votes -- more ballots were cast before Election Day than on it, and Obama easily edged out McCain among early voters. More than half of North Carolina's African American vote was cast early, compared to 40% of the white vote. Decreasing the early voting period by half in the state would actually increase the cost of election administration, adding an unnecessary burden to North Carolina's projected $2.2 billion budget shortfall for FY2012.
  • County election officials in Ohio, where bills have been introduced to shorten the early voting period and, in particular, prohibit Sunday voting, charge that limiting early voting opportunities would prove problematic for Election Day administration. Coincidentally, if the measure passes, it would go into effect in time for a statewide referendum on SB 5, which outlaws collective bargaining. The same is true for the Wisconsin early voting provision recently signed into law by Gov. Walker, which is effective immediately -- just in time for the upcoming special and recall elections.

    Though shortening early voting periods is damaging enough, the elimination of weekend voting - and Sunday voting especially -- is a discreet, yet potentially powerful tactic that could dissuade those with busy schedules due to work/family commitments from getting to the polls. In particular, urban, African American voters have been responsive to Sunday voting. Take Florida, for example: though most Florida counties didn't feature early voting on the Sunday before the 2008 and 2010 elections, the few larger, urban counties that did offer the option experienced a sizable uptick in voting. Coincidentally, these urban counties have the largest African American populations in the state, and those taking advantage of Sunday voting were most likely churchgoers traveling en masse to the polls after religious services, following the entreaties of their ministers. On the Sunday before the election, African American voters comprised 32% of the statewide turnout.

    Measures in Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin are part of larger, omnibus election bills that contain other draconian provisions:
  • Florida's new law also ends a longstanding practice that allows voters to change their address between counties on Election Day and cast a regular ballot. Voters wishing to update their addresses on Election Day must instead cast a provisional ballot, which are less likely to be counted. The new law is so egregious that the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and Project Vote have filed a lawsuit in federal court to block its implementation until it can be reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice as required by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
  • In Ohio, bills under consideration eliminate "Golden Week," the limited time frame before Election Day in which voters can both register to vote and cast an in-person absentee ballot on the same day.  
  • Successful efforts to shorten the early voting period in Wisconsin were rolled into a larger voter suppression bill, which also enacts a strict photo ID requirement as well as changes the state's residency requirements from 10 days to 28 days before an election.

These desperate attempts to impede access to the ballot at any cost are part of larger, right-wing strategies to gain the upper hand in 2012. However, regardless of who wins in the next election cycle, these short-sighted political games will handicap our democracy for years to come.