Second thoughts on early voting

Early voting – like nine days before an election – is apparently an idea whose time has come. But is it a good idea for everyone?

Ulster County voters will be offered the opportunity to vote on the weekends of Oct. 26 and Nov. 3, prior to this year’s Nov. 5 local elections.  In terms of voter convenience and turnout, weekend voting is a very good idea. Ulster residents can early-vote at sites in Kingston and the villages of New Paltz and Ellenville and in the towns of Lloyd, Rochester, Ulster and Woodstock.

Officials will carefully monitor turnout, but there’s also a question of timing. Here, I offer as evidence the 2006 congressional campaign between Republican incumbent John Sweeney and Democratic challenger Kirsten Gillibrand.

Most elections are mere formalities. Incumbents usually outspend their challengers by wide margins, resulting in reelection rates in the high 90s in congress and the state legislature. Every now and then a real contest emerges, between Sweeney and Gillibrand and, of course, between John Faso and Antonio Delgado last year.

A relative unknown, Gillibrand, a corporate attorney, was trailing by some three to five votes, according to some polls, before the last weekend of the campaign.  But then it was revealed the day before the election that Sweeney had been accused by police of physically abusing his wife. Ka-boom! Gillibrand surged to a seven-point victory. Obviously, an awful lot of people changed their minds, based on late-breaking information. It’s called ambush politics and if timed right, as in the Gillibrand-Sweeney race, there’s really no defense for these kinds of bombshells.

Early voting would deprive those people, by their own choice, of any chance to rethink their decisions should circumstances change. Once that vote is cast, it’s gone and counted. Imagine how Sweeney’s absentee voters, their votes cast long before the news on their candidate broke, must have felt when that one hit the fan.

There is the possibility that early voting could mitigate last-minute mischief in that plotters would have to take into account an extended time frame. Had Sweeney had another week or so, might he have explained away those damning police reports? Probably not.

Let us end on a positive note. Weekend voting on a regular basis could increase voter participation, currently at record lows. And that would be a very good thing.