Early voting in West Virginia grows in popularity

The 2018 Primary Election is still eleven days away, but the voting has already begun. Early voting started on Wednesday and will continue until May 5.  Each of the 55 counties has at least one early voting location.

Before the 1980s, voters in every state cast ballots only on Election Day or by absentee ballot. But then states began to allow early voting in hopes it would increase turnout.  Today, at least 37 states and the District of Columbia allow voters to cast ballots before the actual Election Day.

West Virginia’s early voting began with the 2002 Primary and it got off to a slow start.  According to data supplied by Secretary of State Mac Warner’s office, just five percent of the total number of votes were cast before Election Day.  However, early voting has steadily increased in popularity.

The percentage of early voters increased to 15 percent in the Primary and 21 percent in the General Election by 2008.  The rise has continued, but slowed down.

Starting with 2010, the number of early voters for Primary and General Elections has settled at 20 percent or a little above. The Secretary of State’s office reports 23 percent of all votes in the 2016 Primary were cast before Election Day.  The 2016 General Election saw a spike in early voting, at 29 percent.  However, that was a high interest election and overall turnout reached 56 percent in the state.

Early voting has grown in popularity across the country. According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the number of in-person early voters has increased from 25 million in 2004 to over 57 million in the last election.

Opinions about early voting continue to be mixed. Supporters enjoy the convenience.  The ten day early voting period in West Virginia offers many more opportunities to go to the polls when it is easiest.

One of the original arguments in favor of early voting is that it would encourage a higher turnout, but the research on that so far is unclear. It is possible that those voting early were going to vote anyway.

The opponents of early voting argue it diminishes the significance of the actual Election Day.  They would rather see Election Day more like a national or state holiday where offices and businesses shut down and the emphasis is the democratic process.

They also argue that it is risky to cast your ballot before the campaign has ended.  What if new information surfaces just prior to Election Day, but you have already cast your ballot?

Despite the objections, it appears early voting is here to stay.  The running joke about the bad old days of West Virginia elections was, “Vote early and often.” Well, you cannot vote more than once and West Virginia elections today bear no resemblance to bygone days, but you can vote early.

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