GOP election commissioner wants to curb early voting, which two in five voters used last November

The "election integrity" commissioner misuses data to make another suspicious claim.

A voter fills out a ballot on the first day of early voting at the Hamilton County Board of Elections, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017, in Cincinnati. CREDIT: AP Photo/John Minchillo
A voter fills out a ballot on the first day of early voting at the Hamilton County Board of Elections, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017, in Cincinnati. CREDIT: AP Photo/John Minchillo

A prominent member of President Trump’s voting commission is speaking out about the “disadvantages” of early voting as new data shows the rising number of U.S. voters who cast a ballot before Election Day.

The independent, bipartisan Election Assistance Commission on Tuesday released a brief on the growing number of states allowing voters to cast a ballot ahead of Election Day. Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia currently allow at least some form of early voting, and according to the data collected from the 2016 Election Administration and Voting Survey, the number of voters who voted early, absentee, or by mail more than doubled from 2004 to 2016. Last year, roughly two in five ballots were cast early across the country.

The research is still unclear when it comes to the effect early voting has on overall voter turnout — some studies have shown that it increases turnout by two to four percent, while a smaller number show that is actually reduces it by the same amount.

Yet Hans A. von Spakovsky, a Heritage Foundation legal fellow and a member of Trump’s Presidential Commission on Election Integrity, looks at just two studies — including one that’s more than a decade old — to claim that states should reconsider allowing people to vote early.


“It actually decreases turnout,” he wrote in a column in the Washington Times on Monday. “A number of studies, including one by American University and another by professors from the University of Wisconsin, conclude that states that have adopted early voting have lower voter turnout than states without early voting.”

Paul Gronke, a political science professor at Reed College who founded the Early Voting Information Center, told ThinkProgress that while he appreciates von Spakovsky’s analysis of both the costs and benefits of early voting, the argument he makes in his column relies on selected, cherry-picked citations.

“He’s citing one study in isolation, and there’s a lot of work — there are 20 or 30 studies — and he’s ignoring those,” Gronke said, adding that state-by-state data is also far more reliable than national studies.

In his column, von Spakovsky claims that early voting “increases the already skyrocketing cost of political campaigns.” But Gronke said that systematic data on its effects on campaigns doesn’t exist, and anecdotal evidence shows the opposite.

The Heritage Foundation fellow also makes the argument that voters could come to regret their voting choices if events “occur later in a campaign or just before Election Day that could be important to their choice of candidates.”

Gronke, however, said that there’s consistence evidence showing that voting regret does not occur.

“This idea of a last minute surprise — it doesn’t happen,” he said. “That surprise would have to be something that would substantially change people’s votes, and many voters, particularly in this system today, are pretty set in their decisions. The kinds of people whose decisions will be changed by that last minute information are the kinds of people who actually don’t cast early ballots. Early ballots are cast by decided voters.”


Early voting also has other benefits that von Spakovsky does not mention. While studies showing the effects of early voting on overall turnout may not be decisive, the data is more clear when it comes to the impact of the policy on minorities, particularly African Americans, who tend to vote for Democratic candidates.

Black voters are more likely to take advantage of early voting, especially in states that allow voting on weekends when people with inflexible work schedules are more likely to make it to the polls. Black churches across the country organize “Souls to the Polls” initiatives, transporting churchgoers to cast ballots on Sundays leading up to an election, which can boost turnout in those communities.

According to ProPublica, African Americans were more likely to cast in-person absentee ballots than white voters in Florida in 2008. And in Ohio, a 2015 paper found that making cuts to the state’s “Golden Week” — the period of time when voters can both register and cast an early ballot — would hit African Americans the hardest.

Black turnout also declined in North Carolina last year when the state GOP reduced the number of early voting locations. After the state’s attempt to eliminate an entire week of early voting was struck down by a federal court in July 2016, the executive director of the state Republican Party reached out to county election boards in September, encouraging them to make other efforts to restrict early voting in ways that would benefit the GOP. As a result, voters in the urban centers of Charlotte, Raleigh, Fayetteville, and Winston-Salem waited in line for hours to cast an early ballot.

Von Spakovsky, however, does not mention the racial impact that cutting early voting would have across the United States and was not immediately available for comment. Instead, he focuses on studies that note that in-person absentee voting eliminates Election Day of its “stimulating effects,” lowering overall turnout.


“Early voting seems to damage the civic cohesiveness inherent in having voters throughout the nation turn out on a single day to choose our president and our legislative representatives,” he wrote. “Given the costs, particularly its tendency to lower turnout, early voting is a ‘reform’ that states should consider undoing.”

Gronke said he found von Spakovsky’s argument especially puzzling because it’s not predicated on the conservative attorney’s frequently repeated, false claim that voter fraud is rampant.

“I’m going to have a hard time coming up with a name or an instance when I’ve interacted with an election official who does not appreciate the way that early voting helps them run a more secure and efficient election,” Gronke said. “Election officials really like it. Campaigners that I’ve dealt with all really like it. Voters really like it.”

“So I don’t know what audience this is intended to address,” he continued. “There is nobody out there that doesn’t like early voting except people that are not interested in providing more access to the polls.”

Because he is a prominent member of Trump’s voting commission, who, according to emails, has attempted to help set the group’s conservative agenda, von Spakovsky is likely to steer the panel toward recommending states do away with early voting. Already the commission is likely to recommend the Trump administration make other changes to voting law that make it harder for people to both register to vote and cast a ballot. Recently unsealed documents authored by commission Vice Chair Kris Kobach show that Kobach seeks to dismantle the National Voter Registration Act, which prohibits states from requiring that people show proof of citizenship before registering to vote.