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Borne to the USA

Thirty states across the US are allowing early voting this year and the results have been remarkable. Over two million Americans have already cast their votes, well before Election Day, writes Pramit Pal Chaudhary.

world Updated: Oct 28, 2008 19:54 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhary

Thirty states across the US are allowing early voting this year and the results have been remarkable. Over two million Americans havealready cast their votes, well before Election Day. Early voting is a good indicator for two things:

People decide to cast early ballots because they fear they might not find the time to do it on the actual day of voting. This is clearly linked in thiselection to the phenomenon of Barack Obama. Exit polls show that about half the people who have voted are women and a third are black. Both of these groups arelargely pro-Obama. However, strong issues help.

Given that the US is enteringan economic slowdown and waging two wars at the same time, there is probablyenough reason for people to want to vote.Second, it is a good indicator of voter turnout. Some experts say the high level of early balloting suggests the US may be heading for a blowout turnout. It is likely to be over 60 per cent this year and has the potential to beat the 64 per cent turnout of 1960, the highest in recent times. (The record is 66 per cent in 1908.)

Early balloting injects a huge degree of uncertainty in the ability to predict electoral outcomes for pollsters. For example, if there were a lot of early votes in the first half of September, they may have been skewed in favour of John McCain who was leading Obama by two to three points at the time. If they were cast in the second half of September, after Wall Street went bellyup, they might have gone strongly in favour of Obama – he picked up eight percentage points at that point. One supposes that only voters who were absolutely sure of their choice would bother to cast early ballots. But who knows? Early balloting is also a matter of convenience.

By convention, the US votes on the first Tuesday of November. But this is not a constitutional or legal requirement. As Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute has pointed out, this date reflected the need of rural gentry of the 17th and 18th centuries. As he has written,“Saturday was for farming, Sunday was the Lord's day,Monday was required for travel to the county seat where the polling places were, Tuesday you voted, Wednesday you returned home, and Thursday it was back to work.” All made sense then, now it’s a pain for anyone who has a job. Ornstein and others have argued that US elections be held on weekends and voting be spread over two days. All sensible, but even Americans are unready to break such an old convention. Hence, the other option that has developed: early balloting.