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Election 2016: The Consequences Of Early Voting

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We call November 8 Election Day. But for millions of Americans, it's not. Many have already voted. Early voting is now allowed in 37 states and the District of Columbia, as a way to increase voter turnout. But James Huffman, dean emeritus of the Lewis & Clark Law School and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal this week that questions the effect of early voting. He joins us from the studios of OPB in Portland, Ore.

Professor Huffman, thanks for being with us.

JAMES HUFFMAN: It's my pleasure to join you.

SIMON: Isn't it just easier for people to vote sometime over 30 days than taking the time from work or standing in long lines on just one day?

HUFFMAN: Absolutely, it's easier. But I think we sacrifice a lot for that convenience for those voters who find it difficult to get to the polls on Election Day.

SIMON: Well, what do we sacrifice?

HUFFMAN: Well, I think there's several things. I think we sacrifice the ongoing debate that takes place during the period after a person votes early and before the actual Election Day. If you voted as early as early October, as did the president of the United States, you missed all three presidential debates.

And it's less the presidential election than the down-ballot candidates that concern me. Those people don't have the kind of resources to stay up on television and be out in front of the public for an extended period of time. And so it makes it very difficult for them to know when they should peak, so to speak, with their expenditures. And it makes irrelevant the views of those who express themselves later in the process. It also, I think, discounts the possible new events that might happen. And we've seen a lot of new events happening in the presidential election.

SIMON: Does it encourage polarization?

HUFFMAN: I think it does encourage polarization. It presumes polarization. It presumes that, in early October, a month before the election date, people know exactly how they're going to vote. And I don't know how they would know that if they're not going to be polarized - if they're not going to vote a straight ticket or if they're not going to be convinced right from the outset that the candidates who are running for a particular party are the ones they're going to vote for because they've heard nothing that they have to say.

SIMON: Aren't a lot of people, though, who might like to take the time to vote, dissuaded by the time it takes, and especially these days when so many people have to work two jobs and have families to support?

HUFFMAN: There are some alternative ways that we can make voting more convenient. We can have more polling places. We can extend voting hours. We could even make voting - the Election Day a national or state holiday. But I think that we have historically had absentee voting with an excuse - I think that worked well. It allowed people who really couldn't do it - for whom it wasn't just a matter of convenience but for whom it was a matter of impossibility - to get to the polls.

SIMON: Professor Huffman, as we noted, you're in Oregon. So you can't go to the polls and vote even if you wanted to.

HUFFMAN: I can't. The only thing I can do on Election Day is, if I choose to, is drive to a nondescript metal box in a parking lot of a department store or something and put my ballot in that box. Otherwise, I have to mail it at least four or five days before the election to make sure that it gets to the county offices before the Election Day closes.

SIMON: So you can't vote on what a lot of Americans consider to be voting day.

HUFFMAN: That's right and nor can I take my children to the ballot booth, as did my mother, when I was a child. So that civic aspect of Election Day, I think, is important. And I think we've lost it largely, particularly in those states where early voting is possible. I just hear, yesterday, that they're projecting 40 percent of the electorate will have voted early. Well, that's a big part of the American electorate.

SIMON: James Huffman, who is dean emeritus at the Lewis & Clark Law School, visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Thanks so much for being with us.

HUFFMAN: It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.