While next week’s Iowa Caucuses mark the official beginning of the 2020 election season, voters in Minnesota, Michigan, and Vermont already have the opportunity to cast their ballots—thanks to early voting.
Early voting laws, which vary state to state, are intended to make it easier for people to exercise the right to pick their own elected officials. Proponents believe flexibility will lead to more voters showing up to the polls, though evidence suggests these laws actually have little effect on overall turnout.
But it’s difficult to deny the convenience factor. Yet, like so many other things, early voting has become subject to partisan, political warfare in recent years.
Over the past decade, lawmakers have successfully limited the opportunity to vote early in 10 states, including Florida, Georgia, and Ohio. Experts say this work is just one part of an ongoing attack on voting rights.
Since the 2010 elections, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, 15 states have enacted more restrictive voter ID laws; 12 have made it harder for citizens to register to vote; and three have made it more difficult to restore voting rights for those with past criminal convictions. In total, 25 states have implemented some form of voting restrictions in the past decade.
Such efforts have been led almost entirely by Republicans, who say these laws help save money and prevent voter fraud—the latter of which has been repeatedly debunked and proven to be a myth. The real reason, some say, is more nakedly partisan.
The U.S. has one of the lowest turnout rates of any developed country in the world, according to the Pew Research Center.
“Since there’s a perception that a method of voting favors a political party, the party being favored by that method wish to expand that option, and the party that is being disfavored wishes to shrink or diminish those options,” Michael McDonald, an associate professor at the University of Florida and early voting expert, told Vox in 2018.
In other words, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to vote early, which is why Democrats want to protect and expand the right to vote early while Republicans want to suppress it.
Those battles are likely to continue in 2020, but early voting is and remains an option for millions of Americans. In 2016, a record 47 million people submitted their ballots before Election Day. That number could rise this year, thanks to an expected record turnout.
In total, 39 states and the District of Columbia currently offer early voting or in-person absentee voting without requiring an excuse or justification. In-person absentee voting requires voters to apply for an absentee ballot, which they can then fill out and cast in person at a voting location, rather than returning it through the mail.
Five states—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington—conduct all their voting by mail, with a handful of in-person polling locations.
If this seems confusing and byzantine, it’s because it is. Every state determines its own election laws, voting requirements, and election dates. Certain states, like Wisconsin, even allow individual municipalities to determine early voting dates and hours.
To help you better navigate how you can exercise your right to vote during presidential primary season, we’ve broken down important dates you need to put on your calendar, and included which states offer early and “no excuse” in-person absentee voting.
To check your registration or request an absentee ballot, visit your state elections website or Vote.org for more information.
Clarification: The dates listed above for presidential primaries. Some states host separate primary elections for other federal, state, and local offices.
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