Column: Early voting is a terrible idea, and California’s primary proves it

A voter casts his ballot in 2016, before California's new early voting protocols were instituted.
(Michael Owen Baker / AFP/Getty Images)

Now will someone listen? Early voting is stupid.

Under California’s new voter protocols, as many as 4 in 10 Californians may have already voted, either by mail or at voting centers, in the primary set for Tuesday. And what about those who cast ballots for Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg or Tom Steyer, all of whom announced in the last few days that they were dropping out? Their votes simply won’t count. As this newspaper reported on Sunday, almost half of the 20 Democrats whose names appear on the California primary ballot have pulled out of the race.

But that’s only the most obvious problem with this infernal fad that puts convenience above citizenship. Early voting also makes strategic voting more difficult. Say you voted for Elizabeth Warren a month ago, on the first day of early voting. It’s not that you loved her; it’s just that you thought she’d be a better general election candidate. Well, she’s now looking like such a long shot that a vote for Warren is likely to be a vote wasted — and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Or let’s say you’re an anyone-but-Biden or anyone-but-Bernie voter. If you voted for someone who subsequently dropped out, you may have helped the candidate you were trying to thwart.


Or, imagine that you like Bernie’s overall message, and you voted for him on the first day you could. Then, in the last month, more came out about his support for authoritarian regimes, and now you’re horrified. Well, too bad.

Early voting in primaries is a particularly egregious idea, because it makes it more difficult for a party to choose the best or most unifying candidate. Still, only a handful of states have resisted the trend.

The idea was born from widespread elite disgust over America’s low voter turnout. Progressives in particular embraced the idea because many believed that if everyone voted, the left would sweep elections. That premise is flawed.

Los Angeles Times editorial board endorsements for the U.S. House, California ballot measures and more.

Feb. 23, 2020

It’s true that voting earlier lowers the “price” of participating in an election in terms of time and inconvenience. But that also means it cheapens the vote, which means people value it less.

Voter participation rates have long been seen as a good measure of civic commitment. When voting becomes easier, however, more people vote who are less engaged in politics.

If you give all those taking the SAT 1000 points for filling in their names correctly, SAT scores will rise dramatically. But that wouldn’t mean you’d improved the quality of the test-takers.


If we allowed people to text their vote from their phones, we’d certainly have a lot more voter participation, but would the quality of our voters improve?

Just as important: Would the quality of our candidates improve? Or would we make it just a little — or a lot — easier for celebrities and demagogues to sweep to power based on name recognition or cheap pandering to the un- and under-informed?

Meanwhile, the idea that your preferred policies would triumph if everyone voted is, at best, unproven and probably unlikely. As Jason Brennan, a professor at Georgetown University and co-author of “Compulsory Voting: For and Against,” told Governing, “There’s a widespread belief among Democrats that compulsory voting would deliver more states to Democrats.” But, he explains, “It turns out that’s not true. The people who vote and the people who don’t vote are roughly the same in terms of their partisan preferences.”

No journalist would file a report predicting election results a month before the vote — things are just too in flux at that point. But for some bizarre reason, we think it’s a great idea for voters to blindly cast their ballots up to 46 days before they’re due. This is particularly nuts in primaries. At least in a general election, you have some degree of confidence who the candidates are and what the parties stand for.

There is room for some reform. You could make election day into a national holiday — or, for primaries, a state holiday. Turning election day into election weekend has some merit as well.

But civic health is aided by shared civic ceremonies. Voting should be one of them.

Some things are worth making as easy as possible, like flu shots. That’s because the convenience of getting vaccinated doesn’t change the efficacy of the vaccine. Voting doesn’t work that way.