Not only the lonely vote early, but many of them do

By Tom Baxter

I’ve seen some monster election-day lines — in South Africa in 1994 and Florida in 2000, among others — but I’ve never actually had to stand in one. In more than four decades in Georgia, I don’t remember ever waiting longer than 30 or 40 minutes to vote.

So despite the many reasons offered up for why early voting is catching on, it remains something of a puzzle. Last week, some Georgians waited more than three hours to vote, in the limited number of polling places each county provides for early voting. Some arrived early to be first in a line, for a voting option which was originally about not having to stand in line. When it’s easier and a faster, that’s understandable. But why wait in a line when on Election Day there are many more polling places and lines much shorter than three hours?

The shift to early voting has developed very quickly. The 2016 presidential election was the first in which a majority of Georgia voters — 58 percent — voted early or absentee. This year, turnout in the first week of early voting was three times what it was in the last midterm congressional-governor’s race in 2014.

Candidates used to vote on Election Day in front of television camera crews. This year, both Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp voted early and posted about it on social media. This may be the only kind of voting some people will ever experience: 30 percent of those who voted in the first week of early voting in the state were casting their first ballots.

Some people have good reason to vote early, even if it means going to some extra trouble: job conflicts, travel plans, that sort of thing. A lot of it is organizationally driven: the parties and candidates now promote early or absentee voting as a badge of partisan loyalty.

You often hear people say they just wanted to get it over with, as if by the act of voting they could make all those black-and-white television ads go away more quickly. Early voters are less likely to be splitting tickets or debating a candidate’s merits up to the last minute. They’ve made up their minds.

These are all good enough reasons to vote early when it’s convenient, but not quite enough to explain it when it isn’t.

I think it does have something to do with partisan loyalty and an increasing impulse toward tribalism, but it also has to do with something seldom mentioned as a factor in politics. For some people, political activity has become an antidote for loneliness, and the seeming paradox of standing in line for hours to vote early is a telling expression of this. It is a way to connect, beyond a computer screen, for some high purpose. That may seem a very long reach, but come up with a better reason to stand in line for hours unnecessarily.

Interestingly, 42 percent of those who cast ballots in the first week of early voting were age 65 or older, and 73 percent are 50 or older. Older voters are more likely to vote, and even more likely to vote early. (This information comes from a nifty popup website, Georgia Votes, which is tracking early voting statistics on a daily basis.)

Turnout in many counties across the state was up two or three times what it was in the first week of 2014, but in Clayton County, currently ranked the most Democratic in the state, it was up 418 percent.

In Fulton County, it’s up 384 percent. As of Monday, more than 74,000 votes had been cast in Fulton, twice as many as DeKalb County, which had the second highest number of early voters. Fulton often comes in first in county comparisons such as this, but seldom by such a lopsided margin.

We can ponder the demographics, but we don’t really who these early deciders have voted for. We don’t know, either, whether a majority of voters will again cast their ballots early.

As busy as early voting has been, Election Day could be even busier. FiveThirtyEight, forecaster Nate Silver’s website, currently rates the Abrams-Kemp race as the closest in the country. A razor-thin race could keep enthusiasm and turnout running high to very end.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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