Friday, May 13, 2011

My two cents on NC Republicans' efforts to curtail early voting

Given the enormous shortfall in North Carolina's state and local government budgets, some very tough decisions need to be made. Republicans in the General Assembly are arguing that one of these decisions may involve the availability of early voting.

The Charlotte Observer reports about a contentious vote in the General Assembly to reduce early voting.
On a largely party line vote Thursday, the N.C. House tentatively passed a bill that would cut North Carolina's early voting period almost in half.

Republican supporters said cutting the 2 1/2-week period by a week would save money for local governments and for candidates.

Critics said it would reduce turnout, particularly among African-Americans.

"Whether intentional or not, the effect of this measure will be disenfranchisement," state Rep. Kelly Alexander, a Charlotte Democrat, said during the debate. "It will suppress the vote."
Calling this disenfranchisement is far too strong. However, the shorter voting period will almost certainly reduce turnout and have the largest effect on poor, and especially working poor, households.

The expected reduction in voting follows from a simple economic model of the "demand" for voting. In the economic model, people value voting but also value all the other goods that they can possibly consume. People face trade-offs between voting and the consumption of other goods, as the time and effort required to vote reduces the resources available for other things. Thus, voting has a cost, or price. The predictions from the model are the same as those from a standard demand equation. Increases in the price of the good (voting) and decreases in people's resources cause the demand for the good (voting) to fall.

A shorter early voting period makes voting less convenient, effectively raising the price of this good. Lower incomes mean that poor people would already be close to the margin of not voting, so the change in availability/price would be expected to affect them more. Inflexible work schedules and limited transportation options might also mean that the poor would also face higher initial costs voting, again putting them closer to the margin of not voting.

Republicans argue that the effects won't be large. Polls would still be open on election day; mail-in ballots could still be cast, and 11 days of early voting would still be available. Thus, it's an open question as to how much voting would be reduced--that is, how much benefit there is from early voting.

We do know, however, that the costs of offering early voting are extraordinarily low.

In 2010, North Carolina's 100 counties operated 297 one-stop early voting sites, with every county operating at least one site but with many operating multiple sites. Not every site operated through the entire early voting period. Counties tended to operate more sites closer to the election.

A review of the schedules shows that counties offered a total of 1,104 "site days" during the first week of voting in 2010. The NCGA Fiscal Research Division (FRD) estimates that each site cost $389 per day to operate. Using this figure, the average county spent just $4,295 (or $429,500 across the entire state) to accommodate the first week of early voting. Divided among the state's 9.6 million residents, the cost of operating the sites was less than a nickel per person--literally pennies.

It should be further noted that the counties themselves didn't bear all of this cost. Local boards of election can obtain reimbursement from the federal government for the costs of operating these sites. The FRD reports that 59 counties had their costs reimbursed.

Voting is a fundamental right. While it's hard to place an exact value on how much early voting contributes toward extending this right, it seems that it would be worth at least a nickel.