Staff Columnist

Fewer early voting days does not always entail fewer voters

Iowa Supreme Court recently reversed injunction on 29-day early voting period

A voting booth is prepared for early voting in special elections at the auditor's office at the Jean Oxley Linn County Public Service Center in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, March 14, 2018. Early voting has begun for April 3 elections to fill a city council seat in Alburnett and decide public measures in two school districts. The deadline to request an absentee ballot is 11 days before the election under new absentee voting rules, shortening the period to request by one week. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
A voting booth is prepared for early voting in special elections at the auditor's office at the Jean Oxley Linn County Public Service Center in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, March 14, 2018. Early voting has begun for April 3 elections to fill a city council seat in Alburnett and decide public measures in two school districts. The deadline to request an absentee ballot is 11 days before the election under new absentee voting rules, shortening the period to request by one week. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

How much voting is too much voting?

The Iowa Supreme Court last week delivered an order affirming a lower court’s injunction on portions of Iowa’s 2017 election reform law, putting those rules on hold through the upcoming November general election. However, justices also reversed an injunction on Iowa’s shortened early voting period. Iowans will have 29 days of early voting this year, instead of the previous 40 days.

The law crafted by Republicans is being challenged the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa, which argues the voter ID requirement and other parts of the law will disenfranchise voters.

Reasonable people can disagree over the best number of early days, but Iowa Supreme Court justices seemed skeptical during last week’s oral arguments that shortening the term presents a constitutional issue. After all, the 40-day window has only been in place since 2003.

There is considerable evidence that some so-called election integrity measures make it more difficult to participate in elections, thereby reducing voter turnout. However, in the case of early voting, the evidence is not so clear.

Related: If early voting is so great, why not do everything early?

Related: Impact of Iowa’s voter ID law remains unknown

Lawyers challenging the law said during court arguments last week that more than 80,000 people voted during the first 11 days of early voting in the 2016 election. That represents less than 6 percent of all Iowa voters from that election, and it’s not clear those people could not have cast ballots under an abbreviated early vote period.

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Iowa’s primary elections this past June marked the first 29-day early voting span. If that’s any indication, it did not seem to suppress turnout. More than 280,000 Iowans participated in the Republican, Democratic, and Libertarian primaries, one of the highest marks in Iowa history. And some 50,000 Iowans voted early or absentee, a new record.

It is notoriously difficult to measure the impact of election reform on voter turnout. Every election is different, with a wide range of factors and motivations for voters. Yet some researchers have found evidence to show early voting has little impact on turnout, and could actually decrease participation.

A national study published in 2010 by University of Wisconsin scholars argued early voting draws attention away from Election Day, ultimately reducing political engagement. Researchers wrote, “Early voting depresses turnout by diffusing the attention to the election and reducing the importance of election-day mobilization.”

Similarly, Adam Berinsky, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Political Experiments Research Lab, wrote in 2016 that the push to make voting easier, including expanding the number of days to vote, “does little if anything to increase turnout.”

“[T]he more significant costs of participation are the cognitive costs of becoming involved with and informed about the political world,” Berinsky wrote in a policy brief for the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

We all see anecdotal evidence of Americans growing tired of the perpetual election season, and now there’s research to confirm it. More days to vote does not necessarily lead to more voters.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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