EARLY TO VOTE. In the swing states of Iowa and Arizona, voters will be able to cast their ballots in the presidential campaign before George W. Bush and John Kerry have held their first debate.
In Wisconsin, Washington, New Mexico, and West Virginia they'll be able to vote before the third and possibly decisive debate.
People in five other swing states - North Carolina, Nevada, Arkansas, Colorado, and Florida - can vote as early as mid-October, with, of course, no possibility of changing their minds depending on what happens in the final two weeks of the campaign.
Is this good for democracy? I don't think so. Yet it's a central reality of the 2004 campaign, as John Harwood reports (sub. req.) in today's Wall Street Journal. Harwood writes that, according to some estimates, as many as one-third of voters will cast their ballots before the November 2 election. He adds:
The potential implications of such growth in early ballots are enormous, if unpredictable. In Iowa, for instance, voting kicks off a week before the first of three scheduled Bush-Kerry debates. Pre-debate voting could lift the incumbent in a contest that Democratic strategists like to compare with the 1980 contest between President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, which broke sharply toward Mr. Reagan after a debate assured wavering voters of his competence.
At the same time, early votes might precede the sort of late-breaking events that many Democrats believe could help Mr. Bush - such as the capture of Osama bin Laden, or a terror strike on U.S. soil.
The change has come about, according to Harwood, because it appeals to "time-pressed voters." But those same voters could be accommodated just as well through a long-overdue reform: holding elections for two or three days over a weekend. That would make voting much easier than it is now, while at the same time keeping the idea of the election as a singular event rather than something that is dragged out over several months.
In a recent interview, Joe Lenski, executive vice-president of Edison Media Research, told me that as many as 20 million people - 20 percent of the total - could vote by absentee ballot this year. He cited a reason that Harwood doesn't mention: fears raised by 2000's Florida fiasco that your vote may not count. Mailing in a paper ballot is just more reassuring than touching a screen on a voting machine, Lenski explained. (Edison has done exit polling for the television networks and the Associated Press. Its market-research clients include the Phoenix Media/Communications Group.)
Sadly, that's a different issue not solved by weekend voting. The breakdown of trust - documented just this week alone by New York Times columnists Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert - is real and ongoing. In that sense, the rise of the absentee ballot is not a sign of disengagement, but rather of a burning desire to stay engaged even in the face of real doubts.