Answer Man

Voting early in national elections isn’t something new

Q: What’s the deal with early voting? It used to be everybody was required to vote on election day unless you had some significant excuse like undergoing a heart transplant. Now you can vote days or even weeks before the election. What gives?

K.E., of Fairview Heights

A: If you think voting seems to stretch on endlessly now, you should have been around for the earliest American elections.

Take 1800, for example. Because each state chose its own election day, the voting lasted six months. While technically it wasn’t the same as today’s early voting, you have to wonder how those early elections might have been influenced as the results from state after state trickled in.

In 1800, the eventual winning team of Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, running as Democratic-Republicans, scored an early coup in May by getting New York voters to reverse the Federalist majority in the state legislature, which picked the all-important electors for the Electoral College. It proved a crucial win when a 65-65 tie was broken by South Carolina, which, as the last state to vote, delivered the decisive eight electoral votes to Jefferson.

This patchwork system of electing the nation’s top leader persisted for years as federal law permitted states to hold elections any time within the 34 days prior to the first Wednesday in December, which, at the time, was when the Electoral College met. Finally in 1845, as transportation and communication systems improved, Congress made the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November the day that all Americans would choose their next chief executive.

It didn’t take long, though, for this attempt at single-day voting to cause hardships. This was especially true in 1864 when hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers found themselves on the front lines of the Civil War. How were they going to vote in a critical election that likely would decide the future course of the war?

Believe it or not, there were concerted efforts in some states to deny soldiers the right to cast absentee ballots. Those who opposed Lincoln — the Democrats — wanted to prevent their voting, figuring most soldiers would vote for Honest Abe. Eventually, however, 19 Union states adopted some form of absentee voting for soldiers, and an estimated 230,000 ballots were cast from those in the battlefield.

Still, the Civil War was a special case for early voting en masse. For more than a century afterward, absentee voting was severely restricted for the most part. If you had to vote early, you had to have a legitimate reason. Making the process even tougher, you had to have your vote notarized or otherwise witnessed to attest that you were voting properly and not under coercion. As a result, even as recently as 1992, 93 percent of all votes were cast on election day, according to a study at George Mason University.

But starting in the late 1970s, some states began the move to “convenience voting,” by which anyone who wanted to vote early could. More and more, election officials saw rules requiring ballot application, reasons for voting and notarization as a nuisance. By loosening these requirements, they hoped it would entice a larger turnout while satisfying the demand for an easier process.

As a result, we now have gone back to the patchwork of voting laws seen in the country’s early days. According to the latest count by the National Conference of State Legislatures, eligible voters in 37 states and the District of Columbia may cast a ballot during a designated period before election day, no excuse or justification needed. These open periods can range from 45 days up until the Friday before elections. The average is 22 days.

If you really want convenience, move to Colorado, Oregon or Washington — they mail ballots to all voters. Seven states (not Illinois) even permit voters to join a permanent absentee voting list; once they sign up, they automatically receive absentee ballots for future elections. While Illinois began allowing residents to start voting three weeks early in 2006, Missouri remains one of 13 states with no in-person early voting and where absentee voting still requires a valid reason.

In 2012, more than 31 percent of votes were cast early, and numbers are expected to grow. In 2006, half of all voters in Texas were voting at early-voting sites and 70 percent of Washington state voters were casting absentee ballots. For the most part, it may be helping turnout, which steadily grew from 51.7 percent in 1996 to 61.6 percent in 2008, although it did fall back to 58.2 percent in 2012. (The 1960 Kennedy-Nixon battle is still tops, however, with 63.8 percent.)

And don’t forget: With voter registration now allowed on election day at the polls, metro-east residents are urged to vote early. In St. Clair County, you can still do so from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday at the St. Clair County Building, the Caseyville Township Office in Fairview Heights and the O’Fallon Township Office. Other residents should consult their county clerk’s office.

Today’s trivia

Why was “the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November” selected as the day for presidential elections?

Answer to Friday’s trivia: On Jan. 14, 1943, Franklin Roosevelt became the first president to travel on official business by airplane as he flew off in a Boeing 314 “Flying Boat” to Casablanca, Morocco, to discuss war strategy with Winston Churchill. The first official flight of a plane designated as Air Force One was 1959.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer