Gary Wisenbaker, Valdosta Today Editorial Director:
Dekalb County’s decision to allow Sunday voting in the last election cycle of 2014 was received with applause and cheers as well as angst and consternation. Dekalb was the first county in Georgia to ever allow Sunday voting and represented an increase in the number of days available for early voting.
The Lowndes Board of Elections quickly followed suit, at the request of the Lowndes County Democratic Party. Fulton County and a few others also fell in line as well. Generally speaking, the initiative was promoted by local Democratic parties, as in Lowndes, to enhance participation by the black community, traditionally loyal Democratic voters.
Georgia Democratic strategist hoped to get the black turnout to meet or exceed the 33% realized in the 2012 presidential election year in hopes of unseating Republican Governor Nathan Deal in his re-election bid and replacing retiring GOP U.S. Senator Saxby Chambliss with a Democrat.
The effort failed.
Governor Deal and GOP U.S. Senator-elect David Perdue sailed to victory with statewide percentages of 53% or better, some eight percentage points over their Democrat opponents, Jason Carter and Michelle Nunn, respectively. Other statewide GOP candidates down the ballot fared even better with most margins of victory in excess of 10% over their Democrat opponents.
So the question becomes what effect, if any, does early or advanced voting (“early voting”) have on voter participation behavior?
The anecdotal evidence suggests that early voting does not increase voter participation but rather spreads out existing participation over the 23 days (counting Saturday and Sunday) allotted for early voting.
The affect on minority voter patterns also appears to be negligible.
Consider, for example, the last two gubernatorial election cycles. The most recent final figures from the Georgia Secretary of State’s office show that in 2014 a total of 971,359 pre-election day votes were cast. Since 2.6 million Georgians voted, representing a 49.9% voter turnout, early voters constituted 37% of the total votes cast.
Compare this to 2010, the previous gubernatorial election year. Voter turnout was about the same, 2.5 million for a voter turnout of 50%. Early voters totaled 820,785 or about 33% for the votes cast.
Yet in the last presidential election year, 2012, the presidential election year between those two cycles, 995,493 voters took advantage of the opportunity to avoid election day lines and represented 26% of the voting total. In that election, over 3.8 million Georgians voted yielding an astounding 72.1% voter turnout, according to the Secretary of State’s office.
The last two gubernatorial elections statewide results exhibit nearly identical voter turnout numbers with slightly different early voting numbers. In fact, nearly the same number of voters that voted early in 2014 did so in 2012, a presidential election year. This suggests a “mix-up” of the voter pool rather than an increase in participant.
Lowndes tracks the same trend in the 2010 and 2014 gubernatorial elections in terms of turnout. Of the 23,864 votes cast in 2010 , (49% turnout) early voters comprised 37% of the total. The 2014 Board of Election numbers show 21,803 voted (46% turnout) and 44% of that total were early voters. Note that with even more early voting days and a higher percentage of early voters, overall voter turnout did not increase but, ironically, actually decreased.
However, in 2012, a presidential year, 41,147 voted (80% turnout) and early voters comprised 60% of that number. A spike in voter participation in presidential election years is not unusual.
The rise in early voting participation in Lowndes County may be an anomaly. The increase in early voting participation in Lowndes County is no doubt attributed to the decision by the Board of Elections to compress the number of voting precincts from 22 in 2010, to 12 in 2012, to the present number of 9. This constant rearrangement of polling place assignment resulted in confusion by many voters about where they were supposed to vote on election day and who, undoubtedly, decided to avoid the issue and vote early.
Thus, an increase in the Lowndes County early voting participation rate does not translate into increased voter participation overall, just as is reflected statewide. Nor does it appear to increase voter participation by any identifiable voting block, Republican or Democrat.
Early voting translates into savings for cash strapped county governments and voter convenience. The process also lessens the need for local boards of elections to reach out into the community and solicit assistance, both paid and volunteer, to man multiple voting precincts on election day. And keep in mind, those assists are required by state law to have from 3 to 6 hours of training, depending on the particular poll watcher’s task.
In an age of electronic voting and (practically) instant voter verification, early voting appears to be a complimentary component to those advances. Where a local board of election can minimize its attention to labor and facility detail and expense, it can then maximize its attention to the careful and proper registration of voters.
And if a board of elections can efficiently tend the garden of voter registration, then it can take a huge step in combating voter fraud. That’s something we should all be in agreement with.
Gary Wisenbaker, B.A., J.D. is a native of South Georgia where he practiced law in Valdosta and Savannah for 31 years. He has served as state Chairman of the Georgia Young Republicans and Chairman of the Chatham County (Savannah) Republican Party. Gary is a past GOP nominee for State Senate, past delegate to the Republican National Convention and has consulted on numerous local Republican campaigns as well as chaired or co-chaired campaigns for President and US Senate on the county and district level. He is the principal and founder of Blackstone, LLC, a corporate communications and public relations concern.
Gary hosts his own blog at www.garywisenbaker.com and has recently published his first fictional work, “How Great is His Mercy: The Plea”, on Amazon.com.