Yesterday’s Montana special House election being won by a candidate who assaulted a journalist in the closing days of the campaign is being used by opponents of early voting laws as evidence that the practice, intended to expand opportunities to vote by making it more convenient, has serious and problematic unintended consequences. Writing in today’s New York Times, national security scholar Tom Nichols asks, “Would Montanans have voted for Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate for the state’s lone House seat, if they knew he was the kind of person who body slams journalists?” He continues…”[t]oo bad two-thirds of them will never get to make that call, thanks to early voting.”
Should early voters feel cheated by the proverbial “October surprise?” Early voting critics, like Professor Nichols, say yes because they understand elections in a particularly candidate-centric way; as contests between job applicants wherein the voters choose the “best person for the job,” as if there is an objective set of criteria upon which voters can or should chose the folks who make public policy. Nichols writes, “Campaigns are a test of character. Voters in today’s special election and otherwise should not cast a ballot for a candidate until they see how that person passes this first test of fitness for office. That’s a test that gets increasingly challenging as Election Day approaches.”
The idea that elections should turn on the character of the candidates has always been popular and has also always been a powerful weapon in political campaigns. It’s popular with voters and campaign pros alike because, unlike philosophical or policy debates, no specialized knowledge is required by voters. The average (low information) voter is just as capable as anyone else to judge the character of the candidates. Making elections about character increases the policy flexibility of policy makers, making it harder for voters to hold them accountable for actual governance. However, once a politician commits to a character-based standard, they become vulnerable to petty and often irrational criticisms, the legitimacy of which they have already conceded by relying the “character debate” to win office.
As we get further into the Trump Era of American politics, however, I hope folks become increasingly sensitive to and aware of the major pitfalls of candidate-centric elections. Had voters understood the 2016 presidential election as a choice between two public policy agendas, the Democratic and Republican Party agendas, the is virtually no chance that Trump would have won. Survey research has, for decades, made clear that when candidates are removed from the equation the center of gravity in American public opinion on policy is more Democratic than Republican. Had so-called “swing voters” understood the 2016 contest as a choice between continued divided control of the government and total GOP control, even Bernie Sanders could have been elected in November. But, of course, that is not the way the 2016 election was framed by either party’s nominee. Both sides chose to make the race about the lack of fitness for office of their opponent.
How is this working out so far? Are Americans engaged in a serious debate over the direction of the judiciary or access to affordable health care? Or, are they mired in a swamp of personality-centric madness revolving around scandal, incompetence, and incivility?
Early voting puts the emphasis where I think it should be…on the voter’s preferences. Increasing the flexibility of voters increases the chances of and opportunities for voters to focus on THEIR interests and principles and what they want the government to do, not on the reality TV style competition being choreographed by the campaigns. Early voting empowers voters to tune out the candidate-centric nonsense. If any Montana voters regret voting early because of the body slamming incident, then these voters will not avail themselves of the early voting option next time, but to condemn early voting because of this type of regret is to tacitly endorse an often irrational approach to voting that trivializes and debases the democratic process.
Over time, voters will adjust to the reality of early voting and those not captive to media framing and candidate-centric propagandizing will find in early voting an opportunity to engage in this most crucial duty of citizenship on their own terms and on their own time.