Clarence Fanto | The Bottom Line: Recent campaign revelations illustrate flaw in early voting


LENOX >> Election Day, the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, has lost much of its meaning.

Thanks to the expanding phenomenon of early voting, we now have Election Season as early as late September in some states. It's part of the seemingly endless Campaign Season, just as we have Halloween all month (the two go together this year) and "The Holidays," formerly known as Christmas, stretching from Thanksgiving through New Year's Day.

It seemed like a treat rather than a trick to do everything possible to enhance the nation's abysmal voter turnout — a well-intentioned effort to widen the net to snare more voters. Of all those eligible, also known as the voter participation rate, the turnout was 54.2 percent in 2000, 60.4 percent in 2004, 62.3 percent in 2008 and 57.5 percent in 2012. That's one of the worst totals among Western democracies.

The inconvenience of voting on a work day has been cited as an explanation, though polls open at 7 a.m. here in Massachusetts and don't close until 8 p.m. True enough, after-work lines have been formidable in some states, discouraging all but the most dedicated voters in the final hours.

Now, 34 states plus the District of Columbia allow in-person early voting anywhere from 50 to four days ahead of Election Day. Massachusetts joins in for the first time this year, between Oct. 24 and Nov. 4. Cities and towns offer a variety of timetables, so check with your local town clerk if in doubt.

Remarkably, about 40 percent of voters will have cast their ballots before Nov. 8, up from nearly 32 percent in 2012. Some news media already are reporting Trump vs. Clinton trends based on the number of registered Democrats and Republicans who have showed up in early-voting states. That's a highly dubious approach, since it doesn't take unenrolled (independent) voters into account.

Here's the problem: As we've seen with rapid-fire developments in this horror show of a campaign, some folks who've already voted now may have second thoughts with scandals and Russia-inspired Wikileaks emerging day by day. One might think that at least some voters have buyers' remorse, and may wish they had voted differently by the time the "real" Election Day finally arrives.

At this point, early voting is already under way in 18 states. On Oct. 7, when the infamous tapes depicting Trump's bantering about sexual assault surfaced, some voters in 13 states had already made their choice.

The start and end dates for in-person voting ahead of Election Day form a crazy-quilt, inconsistent pattern, with variations even within some states.

What's the solution? The traditional Tuesday should be abandoned as a relic of the 19th century.

In 1845, Congress passed a law designating the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November as Election Day. At the time, farmers dominated the electorate, many lived a day's journey from their polling sites, so a two-day window was needed.

Since Sunday was reserved for churchgoers and Wednesdays were market day for farmers, Tuesday was deemed the most practical choice. November was selected to avoid conflicts with planting season in the spring and harvest in the early fall. Early November seemed safe, ahead of potential winter storms.

Now, with many people working two jobs, juggling odd work schedules and coping with family demands, there must be a better way.

Maybe we need two Election Days — the first Sunday and Monday in November, for example. This should be uniform in all 50 states, and early voting should be dismissed as a noble but ultimately misguided effort (though absentee ballots for legitimate reasons are still needed).

That way, no one can offer a "too busy" cop-out for failing to make a choice, a cornerstone right and civic obligation in our democratic (small d) system.

Imposing fines on voters, as some nations do, is not the answer. Not voting is not a reason for punishment; making participation a requirement by law amounts to coercion and goes against the grain of our individual rights.

But anyone who claims not to care or argues there's no difference between the major party candidates (a laughable conclusion in every election I've participated in since 1964, and especially so this year) is choosing to be a dropout, even a deadbeat.

As I've written in this space every year for the past decade: If you don't vote, whether it's for your local officeholders or a chief executive in Washington, the complaint window is closed.

And claiming that one vote doesn't matter, there's a long list of local, state and national elections that have been determined by the thinnest of margins.

With dark claims by Trump & Co. of a "rigged" election and their calls for partisan "election observers" to monitor polling places to detect (non-existent) fraud in minority neighborhoods, a robust turnout and a solid, unquestionable margin of victory for the successful candidate is vital.

Rather than visiting Town Hall on Oct. 24 or the days that follow (there are even Saturday hours in some towns), my vote is to show up on Nov. 8 wearing red, white and blue and giving thanks for the privilege of voting fair and square, a right denied to so many around the world and defended by our many millions of fallen troops.

Oh, and if you think online voting is the wave of the future, you haven't been following the news. With computer hacking now an international scourge and daily occurrence, who could trust even a supposedly secure, encrypted online polling system?

You want rigged, you've got it.

Contact Clarence Fanto at The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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