Voting is a sacred act of democracy that, for many, involves a fair amount of ritual. We go to the same schools, fire stations or libraries every time we vote. We see the same poll workers checking names from the ledger. Usually you bump into a few neighbors before heading back to your car with a sticker on your lapel that tells the world, “I voted.”
Unfortunately work and other commitments often intrude, and it’s impractical, if not impossible, to perform this civic duty every time. Our over-scheduled lives make it far more important these days for officials to use every tool available to engage voters in the democratic process.
That includes opening the ballot box for early birds.
Massachusetts now allows early voting in general elections, having started in time for the presidential election in November 2016. The Legislature should extend the practice to party primaries, as well.
All of this comes to mind now, in January, because of the pickle of picking a day for fall’s party primaries.
Massachusetts’ traditional primary date, seven weeks out from Election Day, conflicts with the Jewish observance of Yom Kippur. Moving things a week earlier interferes in the observance of the Jewish new year.
Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin is legally obligated to move an election to avoid a conflict with religious holidays. So, he’s settled on Sept. 4 — the day after Labor Day — which is not terribly satisfying, either.
“The day after Labor Day will be a challenge for voters — especially for families with young children getting ready to send them back to school, and for candidates trying to get their message out to voters,” Mary Ann Ashton, president of the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts, told Statehouse reporter Christian Wade.
Much of this problem could be resolved with early voting.
An expanded period of early voting for the primary, in either state accommodates those who cannot cast ballots on Election Day, for whatever reason.
Experience tells us it will be popular. The early voting period that preceded the November 2016 general election in Massachusetts was widely deemed a success, having engaged more than 1 in 5 registered voters in the state. That surely helped the lines at the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 8, during a contentious election that ultimately involved three-quarters of the state’s registered voters.
Early voting was more popular in some communities north of Boston. In Ipswich and Boxford, for example, nearly 40 percent of registered voters cast ballots during the early voting period, according to Galvin’s office. The portion was slightly less in Marblehead. In North Andover and Danvers, it was 35 percent. In Rockport, it was 32 percent.
The point is that early voting involves people in the process who otherwise wouldn’t be. Galvin wants the Legislature to implement early voting for this year’s primaries, albeit ahead of an unusually early election on Sept. 4, and they should not hesitate to do so.
Not everyone is a fan of the practice. William Gardner, secretary of state for New Hampshire, has said early voting “cheapens the value” of Election Day and counterintuitively may suppress turnout. The limited nature of a singular Election Day, he suggests, lends its appeal.
A more pragmatic concern is one of cost. Early voting in 2016 set back Massachusetts cities and towns more than $1 million, state Auditor Suzanne Bump later reported, in determining the state is responsible for paying back some of that money.
The vision of an election as involving a single appointment down at your local polling place is a fading one, however. Democracy works best, and is worth some added expense, when it involves as many people as possible.
We can do that by opening the voting booths a week or two early.