By Giulia Cottino.
Elections are the most vital moment for a democracy and through the vote, people participate in that democracy. Every single vote of every single elector counts; no matter the gender, race or social status of the voter. The 2020 US election will be remembered by an iconic phrase: “Count all votes”, an exclamation that re-echoed during the long counting process, especially for the mail-in ballots.
The massive use of early voting characterised this 46th US Presidential Election – a major success for the Democrats, its main promoter, and a source of electoral fraud according to the Republicans. Looking at the current context, marked by the Covid-19 pandemic, the early vote represented a tool to reduce the spread of the virus among American electors. With 250,000 deaths caused by Covid-19, the USA is one of the most affected countries. In this election, early voting was highly encouraged, mainly by the Democrats, and according to post-electoral data, almost 100 million Americans cast their ballots early –a record-breaking figure. In some states like Montana, North Carolina, and Florida, early vote increased by 90 percent compared to 2016 elections. Electors who chose to vote early were mainly Democrats as the Democratic Party promoted this method of voting. Early voting was at the centre of the battleground between Republicans and Democrats throughout the electoral campaign. Debates over the legitimacy of early cast ballots were raised by the Republicans, especially by Donald Trump. President Trump accused the use of early vote of being a source of illegal votes, a real election fraud that would bring the Democrats to victory, especially in the “Rust Belt” and the states of Arizona and Nevada where Trump won in the 2016 election. He even announced a legal battle to recount the votes in those states where Republicans were initially in the lead but turned democratic upon counting the early votes, but there is no supporting evidence. Early vote is a legal vote, a right guaranteed to every single American citizen, with some variations in terms and regulations between states.
Early vote in the Unites States has a long history dating back to the Civil War, when both Union and Confederate soldiers were given the opportunity to cast ballots from their battlefield units and have them be counted back home. More generally, absentee ballots were delivered by mail to voters away from their electoral borough, but no one else could use the early vote. Then, in 1980, California became the first state to pass a law allowing eligible electors to request absentee ballots for any reason. More states followed California’s example, adopting no-excuse absentee ballot laws. In some states like Colorado, Washington and Oregon, absentee ballots are sent by mail to each voter who can decide to return their ballot by mail or to a physical drop-box. In some states though, a valid excuse is still required to qualify for absentee ballot.
Early voting comes in two forms: early in-person voting and absentee voting. Early in-person voting means electors can vote in person at a local election office or a designated location during a determined period of time before Election Day. Absentee voting, better known as mail-in voting, means voters submit their ballots via mail or by dropping them off in designated areas. Voters apply for and receive an absentee ballot in the days preceding Election Day.
Early voting has increased over the last elections and it has the potential to increase the electoral turnout, eliminating what discourages people to go voting. Many reforms have been put in place to reinforce and improve this voting method. On the other hand, early voting could lead to issues like voting fraud, rare cases of which were reported over the years, and civic disadvantage in terms of campaign information, as people may vote before the end of the electoral campaign. However, early voters usually strongly agree with their party and therefore have no reason to change their mind.
Still, early voting is a legal vote and a right of every eligible voter that can potentially increase the opportunity to participate in American democracy. Especially during this pandemic of Covid-19, early vote guaranteed the right to vote to those people affected by or vulnerable to the virus, because every vote counts.