Nearly 100 million Americans had voted before November 3, the official election day in the US – nearly two-third by mail ballots and the rest in-person. In addition to delaying the counting, such‘early voting might have a significant impact on the election.

In countries where it is allowed, early voting has been effective at relieving congestion at polling stations on election day, something that is especially helpful in this Covid-era.

In the recent New Zealand election, for example, 56.7% of people voted early, an increase from 48% in 2017. Part of this increase maybe attributed to the pandemic. But the popularity of this method was on the rise. In 2011, only 14.7% of New Zealand votes were cast before election day.

In neighbouring Australia, while only 26.4% of votes were cast pre-poll in 2013, it increased to 40.1% in 2019.

In the US, in presidential elections between 2000 and 2016, the percentages of early voting were 16, 22, 30.6, 31.6 and 36.6. With many states relaxing requirements due to the pandemic, early voting is now allowed in 43 American states and the District of Columbia, but in different forms. Early voting periods range in length from four days to 45 days across states, the average length being 19 days, according to a review by the National Conference of State Legislators.

Some disadvantages

Early voters cast their ballots without knowledge of events that may occur later in a campaign or just before the election day. Some believe that it is a travesty to let people cast their votes before they are able to listen to the candidates’ debates, be educated by advertisements or review the most recent unemployment data that could reflect poorly on the incumbent.

Besides, the spirit of civic cohesiveness inherent in having voters turning out on a single day is damaged by early voting. With two-third votes already cast, the thrill of the Election Day is eventually relegated to the nostalgia bin. Finally, early voting might increase the already skyrocketing cost of political campaigns.

With so many pointers against early voting, does it really increase turnout because it extends the period during which votes can be cast? There’s no definite answer though. A 2013 University of Wisconsin study found that “early voting lowers the likelihood of turnout by three to four percentage points”. Though counterintuitive, it was found that the longer the window of early voting, the greater the effect on lowering turnout.

A 2019 article in Election Law Journal: Rules, Politics, and Policy considered four countries with different types of early voting: days-long advance voting in Canada, week-long advance voting in Finland, on-demand postal voting in Germany, and automatic postal voting in Switzerland. It was observed that early voting is unlikely to mobilise commonly underrepresented population groups, with the exception of the elderly, who are often quite likely to take advantage of early voting opportunities.

Mail-in ballots are dropped off from a vehicle at the Registrar of Voters on Election Day in San Diego, California. Credit: Mike Blake/Reuters

Not everywhere though. For example, in a 2020 research paper in Applied Economics, with evidence from Ohio, Ethan Kaplan of the University of Maryland and Haishan Yuan of the University of Queensland found substantial positive impacts of early voting on turnout equal to 0.22 percentage points of additional turnout per additional early voting day. They also found greater impacts on women, Democrats, independents, and those of child-bearing and working age.

Curiously, about 1 in 5 of the early voters of this American election had not voted in their state in the previous election. Thus, early voting might generate an entirely different group of voters. Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent thought that early voting “may end up transforming our politics to a far greater extent than any of us can yet imagine”.

Early voters are often inclined in terms of political allegiance. It was 56-44 in favour of the Democrats among the early voter in the 2020 US election. Early voters in Australia tend to lean towards the Liberal-National Coalition – while the coalition did 4% better in early voting than voting on election day in 2004, this gap rose to just over 5% by 2019.

What’s about India? In addition to the standard problems outlined above, it might certainly be very difficult to ensure a free environment for voters who opt for mail-in ballots. In addition, in-person early voting is not quite easy to implement for nearly one billion voters. More importantly, if implemented, how beneficial will that be for the democratic participation of the citizens? The disadvantages of early voting would seem to outweigh its benefits.

Atanu Biswas is a Professor of Statistics at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.