A college student deciding to vote in the 2012 Presidential Election can find guidance at Countmore.com. There, he will enter his school and his home state. Perhaps he attends Oberlin College in Ohio but is originally from Annapolis, Maryland. This unapologetically partisan website will instruct the student to vote in Ohio, a battle-ground state, where the assumed blue vote will ‘count more.’ In the weeks leading up to the election, many absentee voters, specifically college students, face such a choice: they can choose to vote early in their home state or in the state in which their school is located, affording a student the option to strategize his citizenship by casting his vote where it will ‘count more.’
Absentee voting, an increasingly common practice, was originally intended to make voting available to those living abroad or in the armed services—those who cannot physically be present at home. Voting absentee by mail, fax, or even, in special cases, by email, falls under the category of early voting: any vote cast before election day either in-person at a designated polling location or absentee. While early voting has long been in place for those not at home on Election Day, it is only in the past decade or so that geographic necessity has exploded into a voluntary communal action. Many states (currently 33) have passed ‘no-excuse’ absentee ballot legislation, which means any resident can vote absentee, no legitimate reason—that is, a physical inability to get oneself to the polls—required. The terminology evokes an urgency surrounding the process, one that seems effective: as of October 26, 7.7 million US citizens have already cast their ballots for the presidential election, with early voting and absentee voting expected to make up 40 percent of 2012 election votes.
Negotiating the pros and cons of voting absentee forces voters to consider and prioritize their ties to the many places that could be called home. For college students, as an example, the choice becomes not convenient but strategic. One Brown University student choosing to vote in Rhode Island explained, “I don’t identify strongly as a member of my community back home, and (fingers crossed) my plan isn’t to live at home in the future, so I feel like it’s more important for me to be knowledgeable about and have a say in issues local to Rhode Islands.” But political or familial ties may also send the vote ‘back home.’ One college student voting absentee in Virginia rationalized his decision: “Virginia is a more contentious state; there is more of a likelihood of the state voting in a direction I do not agree with so I’d like to put my vote there.”
Beyond the choice of where to cast one’s ballot, state-specific voter deadlines and procedural rules force the voter to consider when and how. To vote absentee, one must request an absentee ballot by mail from the town hall or election center in his legal place of residence, before mailing it back, completed and signed. In-person early voting occurs on designated days at polling locations. Specific rules and deadlines for these processes, however, vary from state to state, and states’ extra requirements often reveal a need to physicalize the remote voting process. States like Tennessee and Michigan require first-time voters, most of whom are college-age, who register by mail to cast their ballot in person. North Carolina requires that all ballot requests be handwritten.
The decision to vote absentee thus suggests a certain level of political investment and negotiation, contrary to the general perception of this avoidance of the polls as lazy or anticlimactic. “I voted absentee in the last election. It was anticlimactic,” commented one Brown student who will vote absentee again this year. There’s a certain buzz about being at the polls, pressing a button, receiving a sticker, standing in line dutifully on November 6 that is also absent when voting absentee. Casting a vote becomes a USPS back and forth of applications and forms between the voter and the ‘local election official.’ Remarks one student absentee voter, “It doesn’t sound as fun as actually going to the voting booth in my home-town.”
First Lady Michelle Obama tweeted a photo of herself with her Illinois absentee ballot. The caption reads: “I couldn’t wait for Election Day!” In response, President Obama announced his intention to follow his wife and vote early on October 25. To vote at the polls on Election Day is to participate in a national civic ceremony, one immortalized in the iconic shot of a candidate performing his own civic duty at the booth. But Americans, traditionally brought together by this communal act on the first Tuesday of November, can now effectively choose their own election day, as expressed by First Lady Obama in a speech later that day to Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio: “Today, I voted for my husband! ...Today was my election day.” When the iconic photograph is shared on Twitter and the voting experience is mapped by express-mail envelopes circling the country, the ritual of elections gets dispersed. This is perhaps no more than the disintegration of a sentimental affirmation of democracy. On the other hand, the dispersal may compromise precisely what elections stand for: the equal, competitive playing field between two candidates that culminates on one Election Day, and the equal opportunity and importance granted to each voter and his vote.
For the 2012 election in particular, early voting has been granted special status in the campaigns of both candidates, with each campaign emphasizing the importance of absentee voting in efforts to secure votes before November 6. While in the past, most early voters have been Democrats (making up 61.2 percent of all early votes cast in 2008, compared to 18.7 percent by Republicans) both the Romney and Obama campaigns have been furiously courting the early vote, specifically in swing states like North Carolina and Iowa. “We’re seeing such high volumes already,” said Michael McDonald, a George Mason University Professor who heads the United States Election Project. “It tells you just how critical the early vote is in general. If you neglect that early vote, you’re neglecting a large segment of the population.”
Election forecasters on both sides employ early voting numbers and Electoral College projections in the guessing game of which candidate is actually ahead. Election forecasters’ de facto approach (of not knowing but talking all the time) explains why one poll has Barack Obama leading in early voting (Bloomberg News, October 28) while just one week earlier Romney was set to win the election precisely because of early voting (Hot Air News, October 18). The Romney camp expects early votes to come from right-wing voters—as older, more experienced voters, they will have the time and logistical know-how to cast their votes in advance. Governor Romney is also making a concerted effort to ensure that military personnel, expected to vote Republican, receive their ballots with enough time to complete, sign, and return. The Left, however, is hoping for the same push from younger, more mobile voters, like students, who are potentially more likely to vote absentee. In her Ohio speech, First Lady Obama called early voters the Obama campaign’s ‘secret weapon.’ Broadcasting early leads has the dual purpose of encouraging fellow party-members to join the frenzy and vote already, and of even faking out the opposite side. Left-wing media sources might broadcast high Republican counts to deter Romney voters—he’s got it in the bag, so why bother.
The strategies surrounding early voting, both of voters and campaigns, are part of a larger battle over government-supported voter suppression in the form of new voter identification requirements and limitations on registration drives. This past summer, Ohio’s majority-republican legislate passed a law blocking early voting during the weekend prior to election Tuesday for all except military personnel, which would impeed initiatives like Souls to the Polls, a movement that takes advantage of early voting by bussing church congregants, the majority of whom are African American, from service to the polls on the Sunday before the election. A federal appeals court eventually overturned the law, declaring it unconstitutional.
Voter-fraud is the oft-cited and oft-dismissed reason to discredit early voting and support minority and student disenfranchisement, but the process of mail-in voting could in fact compromise the integrity of individual ballots. Ballots received by mail may not be counted due to slight discrepancies between the signature on the ballot and that on the registration form, down to the shape of one letter. A Florida absentee ballot requires that the voter sign the outside of the envelope; miss the small print, and the vote will go uncounted. There were even reported instances in the 2000 election of parties holding onto absentee ballot applications before turning them into country registrars, as a way to sync the arrival of absentee ballots to voters with targeted TV ad-campaigns. Earlier this week, almost 27,000 absentee ballots cast in Florida’s Palm Beach County had to be re-copied by hand in order to be read by scanning machines because of a printing error.
In the absence of the verification or legitimacy that in-person voting might guarantee (although, as the 2000 presidential recounts made clear, even counting votes at the polls is subject to error), the stock ‘I Voted’ sticker has taken on a new form. A recent Twitter trend involves absentee voters who photograph their completed ballots with the accompanying hashtag #ivoted. Tweets like “Sent in my absentee ballot!! #ivoted #firsttimeever :)” and “I mailed mine today! Make sure you #ivoted !” show absentee voters who are making an effort to regain some control over the opacity of the mail-in voting process. If the process of casting a vote is seen as a movement from Point A to Point B—from submitting the ballot to the vote being counted—these endpoints get distended and blurred in the absentee voting process. These early voters are solidifying Point A—even if the timing and legitimacy of Point B is out of their control.
The #ivoted trend also reveals a tension between the trajectory of both parties’ campaigns and the process of early and mail-in absentee voting and another phenomenon that scares campaign managers and political analysts. “Not even sure why I’m watching this #debate! Absentee ballot was mailed in 5 days ago. #ivoted #Obama” was tweeted on October 22, the night of the final presidential debate. The decision to vote early or absentee is an indication that anything that happens before November 6—both planned events, such as presidential and vice-presidential debates, and unforeseen events like the leaking of Romney’s 47 percent video or the Benghazi terrorist attacks—will have no effect on the already-cast vote. As one Brown student who voted absentee explained, “Nothing will change my vote, I already sent it in.” Considering that mail-in voting has been available in some states since September 7, early voters are essentially precluding themselves from the deluge of influences, both partisan spin and relevant information, that lead up to Election Day. Their decision is either less informed, blind to what some might see as the essential differences between the two candidates that have only emerged during these past weeks, or safe from media and campaign manipulation.
If “the election will essentially be won or lost before Election Day,” as McDonald forecasted, not only have the persuasive potentials of both campaigns exhausted themselves weeks ago, but the significance of voting at all is called into question. The notion of symbolic voting that is highlighted by the fact that an election may be called early on November 6 is exploded by the possibility that all votes cast on November 6 will have no effect. Voting campaigns like Rock The Vote operate on the notion that “Your vote matters,” that collectively each individual vote counts, while strategic voting among college students highlights that some count more than others. When, however, in areas like Florida and DC (both places where vote “mattering” is an object of continual debate), absentee ballots are still accepted 10 days after the election, those paper votes can no more matter than would a Tweet of support @BarackObama in June. To be sure, the delayed votes could exert influence on local politics, but the announcement of the president will have already been made.
If early voting has in fact already determined the next US president, every participant in the campaign—the two candidates, political pundits, donors, party organizers, and the voters—are left to simply go through the motions. When the 90 million qualified voters who are expected not to vote at all are taken into account, what emerges is a severe disconnect between the reasons for voting in the general election—civic duty and political investment—and the cruelty of its promise that your vote counts. Yet, despite the fragmentation and vulnerability, even absurdity, of the American voting process, many voters are not willing to let go of that promise. Nor will any voter deny that come November 6, the consequences of the process will be very real. And the stakes feel decidedly high.
BELLE CUSHING B’13 has already voted. OLIVIA-JENE FAGON B’13 is pretty sure her absentee ballot won’t come.