Thursday, May 25, 2017

Why Greg Gianforte is Not a Good Enough Reason to End Early Voting

Greg Gianforte (R-MT)
I'm going to admit-up until about 12 hours ago I did not have particularly high hopes for the Montana special election in terms of it being truly competitive.  While the race was starting to tighten, and the amount of money spent on the race was psychotic, the reality is that the seat seemed headed toward Republican Greg Gianforte.  The Republicans had spent twice as much on their candidate, it was a district that Trump won by 21 points, and in my opinion the Democrats botched by having a candidate that could be considered as flawed as the Republican in some respects.  After all, there were better candidates like Monica Lindeen, Linda McCulloch, and Denise Juneau who have actually won statewide office before who could have used that experience to sink what has been a surprisingly difficult seat considering the state's luck with the Senate (Democrats haven't held the seat since Pat Williams retired in 1996, while for all of that time the Democrats have had one, sometimes two, of the Senate seats).

But last night, in one of the more stunning 11th-hour surprises I've seen in politics (and considering recent events, that's saying something), Gianforte totally upended his campaign to replace Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke in the House.  At an event, Gianforte reportedly body-slammed into Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, with witnesses there to see the event take place, and was charged with misdemeanor assault.  In a different time-and-place, this would have been a death knell for him.  Polls were closing, but people wouldn't stand for a member of Congress physically attacking a reporter, as good of a metaphor for stomping on the First Amendment as one can create.

Unfortunately, as was evidenced by a man who bragged about sexually assaulting women being elected president, this isn't a time that always punishes violent actions, and it's questionable at this point what effect Gianforte's behavior will have on his chances of winning.  Perhaps because it was so late and the facts are still unfolding or perhaps because Trump's core supporters hate journalists so much they won't care...or it's possible this will be a stake through the campaign, being different somehow because there were witnesses or because Gianforte's running against a man (sorry, it's true).

But one thing that could also impact this situation is the fact that most people have already voted.  According to Kyle Kondik of Sabato's Crystal Ball, one of the leading elections resources in the country, if you use 2014 as a judge as many as 2/3 of the votes in Montana have already been cast for a candidate.  It's questionable whether this helps or hurts Gianforte, of course, as we don't know where those ballots are from or whom they were cast for; while early voting has traditionally favored Democrats in recent close elections, it's possible that with the upcoming holiday weekend that trend may be misleading.  Either way, these ballots will be cast not knowing that one of the candidates attacked a member of the press and was charged with a crime the day before the election.

Online, this has led to some arguing that this is a reason that early voting needs to be abolished, and on the surface-level this isn't unreasonable.  After all, this is the sort of action that should affect how people vote.  It's certainly affected the newspaper endorsements for Gianforte, since he had gained the approval of all three of Montana's largest papers, but they all rescinded their endorsements yesterday evening in the wake of the assault.  If newspapers can do it, why can't people?

The problem here is twofold.  One, early voting is not just about convenience.  Early voting is about allowing people who cannot easily go to the polls on a random midweek day to vote.  Even if we made Election Day a national holiday, not all employment could shutdown for the day.  Emergency services, military personnel, and private enterprise (particularly retailers, dining establishments, and tourism-related industries) would surely still stay open to take advantage of all of the people home from work.  As a result, the people who work in those fields have a minuscule amount of time, sometimes no time, to be able to vote, and asking an employer to let you out to vote may be the law, but it's not always pragmatic, particularly for people who work two jobs.  Early voting solves a problem for those in our society who have limited mobility, either physically or due to employment, and they shouldn't be discounted as citizens because of their economic situation.

The second reason is that early voting can stand because there is another solution that can solve this problem: allowing people to alter their absentee ballot in-person on Election Day.  Admittedly, no state quite has a statute (from what I'm finding) that would allow for something so close to the election as Gianforte's incident, but at least three states do allow you to change your vote if it's close to the election, even if you've voted absentee: Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan.  There's no reason that ballots need to start being counted until the close of polls on Election Day (really, there's none other than itchy political reporters and armchair pundits watching at home), so why not change the law to allow people to pick a different candidate at the last minute.  This isn't an isolated incident.  For the good or the bad, we had a number of last minute events in 2016 that could have impacted people's votes (the Access Hollywood tape, the late-breaking investigation by James Comey into Huma Abedin's emails).  There should be a mechanism to change your vote if you feel that a candidate has no longer earned the checkmark you cast for them.  But sacrificing early voting is not the answer.

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