Sunday October 21, 2012

LENOX

Halloween Season now lasts weeks rather than a single day, marking the start of our "holiday" that stretches to Jan. 1.

And now, in much of the nation, we have Election Season that lasts as long as 35 days.

Extending the holiday season, primarily to enhance retail sales, strikes some as a treat. But the growing phenomenon of "early voting" has the marking of a bad trick.

In Iowa, an estimated 35 percent of voters have already submitted their ballots. They made their choice prior to last Tuesday's town hall debate and before tomorrow night's crucial confrontation on foreign policy.

They are, in effect, reviewing a play -- a torturously long one -- based on the first act.

Early voting is now allowed in 32 states plus D.C. It has captured the public's fancy, though Rep ub licans have triggered court battles, mostly losing ones, in an effort to supp ress the votes of presumed Obama supporters.

More than 30 percent of all voters are expected to cast an early ballot this year. In the key battleground state of Ohio, more than two million of the 7.9 million registered voters will be early birds at the polls, now that the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to short-circuit the process.

Ohioans began voting on Oct. 2, and last Tuesday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling requires the state to keep its polling places open on Saturday, Sunday and Monday just before Nov. 6. Ohio's Secretary of State points out that by Election Day, voters will have had 264 hours of polls open for in-person early ballots.

Two states -- Oregon and Washington --now mail every registered voter a ballot, returnable by Postal Service or in person at the polling site. As a result, turnout in 2008 exceeded 70 percent, the highest in the nation. Hardly any glitches have been reported.

But a just-released CalTech-MIT study urges election officials to discourage ‘no-excuse-needed' absentee voting -- a form of early voting -- and to resist pressures to expand postal elections after more than 2 percent of mailed ballots in California were ruled invalid because of errors in filling them out.

"If you want to cast your vote early and make sure that it counts, it's better to do it in person at an early voting site than to mail it in," the study recommended.

Anything that encourages voter participation -- abysmally low in the U,S. compared to other nations -- is worth serious consideration. In 2008, only 62 percent of eligible voters took part in the presidential election. Remember, only 70 percent of voting-age citizens are registered.

However, though the number of undecided voters is very small at any given time in this year's highly-polarized electorate, people should have the option to change their minds based on debates and other new information that emerges up to Election Day.

In New England, only Vermont and Maine allow early voting and "no excuse needed" absentee ballots. In Massachusetts, the rest of New England and New York state, there's no early voting and absentees seeking a ballot must have a valid reason.

For sure, every possible action is needed to avoid vote suppression and guarantee access to all -- critical as nightmare scenarios already are unfolding about what could happen on Election Day in hotly-contested states.

Perhaps a better national plan would be to open the voting window wider, with polling stations up and running from Saturday through Tuesday during the first week of November.

Opening the polls a full month or more before Election Day makes a mockery of the system. Election Day, or Election Weekend, should remain special -- a chance for Americans to choose leadership that determines the type of society and economy we'll all have to live with -- and doing it on the same timeline, with the same set of facts.