By Glynis Kazanjian
Forty-six early voting centers will open Oct. 27 in Maryland for the 2012 presidential election, but it is not clear that the convenience is worth the $2.6 million price tag taxpayers are paying for the new benefit.
Overall, voter turnout has not increased, and one national study suggests early voting may have depressed turnout in several states, possibly because election day loses its stimulating effect on non-voters.
Since Maryland implemented early voting in 2010, a small percentage of the electorate has taken advantage of the six-day, pre-election period now afforded under law. Only 2.4% of eligible voters used early voting centers in the 2010 and 2012 primary elections and 6.3% in the 2010 general election, according to the State Board of Elections.
The percentage of early voters has steadily climbed among those voting -- 9.6% in the 2010 primary, 11.7% in the 2010 general, and 13.4% in the 2012 primary -- overall voter turnout decreased when compared to the 2006 and 2008 elections.
According to at least one political analyst, the bang is not worth the buck.
“Early voting is actually a waste of taxpayer money that does not boost turnout,” said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “In a study of the 2008 election, researchers at the University of Wisconsin actually found that early voting results in lower turnout - not higher. Specifically they found that though more than 30 percent of votes cast in the 2008 presidential race arrived before Election Day, the study determined early voting actually depressed turnout in a typical county by 3 percentage points.”
This national study found that same-day registration encouraged turnout of non-voters more han did early voting. Election-day registration produced one-stop shopping, with no delay between registering to vote and the actual voting. Maryland does not allow election-day registration.
Local governments pay most costs
In 2010, 24 local boards of elections spent $2.6 million to implement early voting. The cost is expected to be about the same, “at least $2 million” for the 2012 elections, according to Department of Legislative Services staff. State expenditures are estimated at $360,000, similar to the cost incurred in 2010.
But those who sponsored the legislation say providing additional access to voters outweighs the costs, and the new program needs more time.
“The cost of having access to polls is worth every penny,” said Del. Justin Ross, D-Prince Georges. “The right for Americans to vote is the most important right we have as Americans. Providing easy access to allow people to vote is a burden we must carry.”
“Because early voting in Maryland is still new, I think we should give voters the opportunity to become more accustomed to the process to get a better gauge of how many people might take advantage of it on an ongoing basis,” said Del. John Olszewski, Jr., D-Baltimore County. “I do not support eliminating early voting, but once we have a sense of the voting numbers and patterns, would be open to the idea of reducing a few days -- if the reduction would result in meaningful savings and still give voters every opportunity to have their voices heard.”
Voters approved it in 2008
In 2008, Maryland voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment allowing early voting in the state. In 2009 House Bill 1179 passed, paving the way for the implementation of early voting centers.
Local governments are now mandated to provide between one and five early voting centers, depending on a county’s registered voter population. Facility usage fees, staff, including election judges, and security are among the recurring costs to be covered, as are voter education, outreach and communication.
32 states, plus Washington, D.C., have early voting.
In 2011, Del. Bill Frank, R-Baltimore County, attempted to repeal early voting, but without success.
“The evidence showed in state after state that the number of people voting and the voting percentage did not go up at all in any of the early voting states,” Frank said. “Why are we spending that much money and not seeing any increase in the voting turnout? It is fine to make it more convenient for people, but at what cost?”
Early voting centers will be open from Oct. 27 through Nov. 1. For more information, go to the State Board of Elections website.
The general election is Tuesday, Nov. 6.