Early birds miss the point

Now aren’t you sorry?

Two or three weeks ago, maybe even earlier, you zipped through that absentee ballot, check check check, and hustled it off to the mailbox as if you were claiming a lottery prize.

And see what you missed? So much has happened since then that it’s barely the same election it was on Jan. 7. That was the first day you could vote by mail in what is now absurdly called the Feb. 5 primary -- absurd because, analysts believe, at least half of California’s voters will have opted to vote by mail before then.

If you marked John Edwards’ or Rudy Giuliani’s name that political eternity ago, you blew your vote. They’ve dropped out. So have Bill Richardson and Fred Thompson. Ditto Dennis Kucinich. At best, you’ll be counted as a protest vote.


The world’s tanking stock markets, the flop-sweat in home sales, the deepening, darkening sub-prime chaos and the candidates’ dueling recovery proposals -- forget about it. You voted already.

A lot of people have said they stopped and rethought their choices after Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had a nasty go-round before the South Carolina primary, and after Bill Clinton’s title as “the first black president,” bestowed on him by writer Toni Morrison, was taken away from him -- by Toni Morrison.

Did all that change your choice? Too bad, too late.

Casting an absentee ballot so far ahead of election day is like picking a Super Bowl winner based on who’s ahead at halftime. It’s like recommending a book you’ve only halfway read. It’s like getting married on the first date.

Especially in this election, when the level of sturm und drang has been higher than Paris Hilton’s hemlines. That volatility was all over The Times poll this week, which found that 3 in 10 California Democrats and 4 in 10 Republicans might still change their minds before Tuesday.

Are you early birds suffering voter remorse? A Florida voter quoted in the other Times, that newspaper in Giuliani’s hometown, said regretfully of his too-early choice: “I’ve already voted; I voted for Mr. Giuliani. I wish I’d voted for Mr. Romney.”

It’s exactly what the candidates long to do -- lock up your vote early, before they do or say something stupid enough or outrageous enough to change your mind.

The chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party sent an e-mail reminder that “absentee ballots will save valuable time and money in the final weeks of the campaign and help busy people to remember to cast their ballots.”


Save time? Excuse me. The country asks its citizens to sit up and pay a little attention to politics every four years, rather than choosing a president by the venerable “one potato, two potato” method, and you can’t spare the time to check the headlines for a few more days? If voters can’t get to the polls before or after work, California law requires employers to give them a maximum two hours’ paid time off to vote.

Save money? What’s a stamp cost now, 41 cents? As for remembering, with political news wallpapering the world, who can forget that there’s an election on?

The phrase “absentee ballot” is an antique, a holdover from the days when it literally meant that you would be away from home on election day or so ill that you couldn’t make it to the polling place. In the 1920s and ‘30s, this was a rare and serious matter; when Massachusetts resident Calvin Coolidge voted absentee at the White House in 1924, he had to swear an oath in front of witnesses and a notary public.

Voting by mail has undoubted advantages. In 1942, as Congress debated whether to let men and women serving in World War II vote absentee, the head of the National Negro Council praised it as a way to guarantee that 400,000 black servicemen, who might otherwise be harassed and disenfranchised by poll taxes in their home states, could vote without impediment abroad.


In enlightened California circa 1954, the secretary of state proposed voting by mail, but it wasn’t until 1978 that absentee voting became easy voting. Absentee ballots were made available to all California voters, no reasons required.

Considering how crappy voter turnout usually is, especially in off-year elections, easier isn’t all bad, and it doesn’t have to be early.

As for me, I love voting on election day -- walking the dog to the polling place, seeing the neighbors, checking the turnout. The ideal may be to get an absentee ballot, fill it out the night before the election -- after every candidate has said every last thing he or she can say -- and walk it to the polling place in person.

Anyway, eventually we’ll all be voting from our cellphones. Just don’t do it too early. Or often.