Does Early Voting Need Changing?

Early voting costs you money—and more.

The Secretary of State announced on Monday that more than half a million Tennesseans voted early this year—setting a new record for a state primary election. That is good news. But is early voting all good news?

The answer to that depends on how much you’re willing to pay for that right to vote over a period of up to 21 days before Election Day. That’s right: Early voting costs you money.

It Costs You Money

First, it costs you money as a taxpayer. This is because the various local election commissions must pay for extra staff to cover the cost of such a long voting period. For example, if we’re concerned about spending by local government and risk of increased sales and property taxes to pay for it, then cutting the early voting period down to one week, still a lot of time, would cut these costs at least in half.

Second, it cost everyone who is willing to help finance a candidate’s campaign. When I ran for the state Senate back in 1994, there was only Election Day. As a challenger to an incumbent, it allowed me to focus my most expensive expenses (radio and TV) toward that one day. A week, maybe two, of advertising by these expensive means was all that was needed. But today, candidates have to advertise at a minimum of six or seven weeks because they have to be “on air” at least two weeks before early voting starts. This dramatically increases what candidates have to spend.

You might say, “Well, they would spend the same amount anyway because to increase name recognition they are going to start advertising months out.” Well, that might be true with respect to state-wide races. But it is sure a lot less true of state legislative races now costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, far more than prior to the advent of early voting.

But it might even save money on state-wide races. Consider. State-wide candidates didn’t always run expensive advertising for 4 to 6 months. And maybe some of it was because without early voting starting almost a month out from Election Day, they had a whole month less of advertising they had to do. With television so expensive, imagine how much money might still be in the pockets of candidate supporters if they were not having to pay for an extra month of radio and TV.

It May Cost More Than Money

But there may be another cost, at least at the state legislative level. A long early voting period hurts challengers to incumbents. There might be many great public servants out there, but they never consider running because they aren’t connected to the wealthy or able to self-fund. For example, I don’t know that I could have won in 1994 had there been early voting. I could not have raised the money to run television or radio for six weeks. Two weeks was manageable. But had there been early voting and had I not been able to advertise at least two weeks before early voting and all during early voting, the incumbent would have been getting all the votes during early voting, votes I could have never made up on Election Day.

While some might rejoice to think early voting could have kept me out of the state Senate, let’s not be short-sighted—the same could be true of any challenger to an incumbent.

Two weeks of early voting is ideal for incumbents because they have a far greater ability to raise money to pay for expensive advertising and take advantage of a challenger’s lack of name recognition during early voting. We might have a better government if it weren’t so geared to incumbents and those who know the wealthy or can self-fund. Early voting is great, but it also has costs we can’t ignore.