Primary Focus: Meaningful Access for Early Voters

Posted by Molly Rockett, Demarquin Johnson on April 29, 2016

Zoom In: Frontrunners are full steam ahead in Acela Primary 

On Tuesday, voters in the Acela Primary made their voices heard. Donald Trump swept the Republican primaries by large margins. In the wake of his first majority win in New York’s primary, Trump earned 56.7% in Pennsylvania with Ted Cruz in a distant second at 21.6%. Trump also won 57.9% in Connecticut, 60.8% in Delaware, 54.4% in Maryland, and 63.8% in Rhode Island. These latter large percentage point wins were followed by John Kasich in a distant second obtaining between 30% and 20% of the vote, with Cruz in third. Currently, Trump maintains a clear delegate lead with 994 delegates, Cruz has 566, and Kasich has 153. As we show in our popular vote spreadsheet, Trump has earned more than half of pledged delegates with less than 40% of votes cast in nomination contests to date. 

Hillary Clinton won four of the five primaries on Tuesday. She received 51.8% in Connecticut, 59.8% in Delaware, 63% in Maryland, and 55.6% in Pennsylvania. Bernie Sanders edged out a win in Rhode Island with 55% of the vote. This leaves the current pledged delegate count at 1,645 for Clinton and 1,318 for Sanders.

Zoom Out: Looking to the light at the end of the tunnel

The results of the most recent primaries have affirmed the notion of a “presumptive” nominee for both parties, but the contests aren’t over yet - especially on the Republican side due to their different delegate rules. In a rare circumstance, states like California will be able to influence the outcome of the primary.

For Democrats, Clinton is further ahead in pledged delegates than President Obama was ahead of Clinton during the 2008 election at this time. While it is technically not impossible for Sanders to win the nomination, it would require his campaign to win nearly 75% of the vote and remaining delegates and persuade superdelegates to support him instead of Clinton.

On the Republican side, 75% of delegates have been allocated. It is now mathematically impossible for Cruz or Kasich to secure the nomination by gaining 1,237 delegates. However, there is a possibility that Trump will not be able to reach the threshold either, especially with winner-take-all rules if he were to slip up in states like Indiana and California. The shaky Kasich-Cruz agreement seeks to do exactly that. Despite their compact, strategic voting is not a realistic solution. FairVote elaborates on the structural disadvantages of our current system that harm voter’s choice in a previous blog.

Focus: Meaningful access for early voters

Every American voter has the right to participate in elections, but not everyone can get to their local high school gym, spend an hour in line, and fill out a ballot on a work day in the middle of the week. Access to alternative voting pathways is key to bringing more voices into the process. Absentee voting laws in most states are intended to do just this, providing an avenue for voters to participate even if they cannot appear in person at the polls on the day of the election.

Unfortunately, many still miss the mark. In the most recent primary voting states, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Delaware, and Rhode Island all maintain strict excuse-required absentee voting. In these states, only select groups of qualifying voters are eligible to receive absentee ballots. Voters must legally certify that they are not able to vote in-person for one of the pre-approved so-called “excuses”. While religious objections, travel, disability, and military service are covered, a variety of other categories are not. Voters with work obligations, responsible for child-care, or experiencing unexpected illness on the day of voting, for example, are effectively disenfranchised as none of those barriers qualify them to receive absentee ballots.

Some states acknowledge the flaws of excuse-required absentee voting, and use other alternatives to expand early access to the ballot. Among the five states that voted on Tuesday, however, only Maryland gave its voters some options beyond strict absentee voting. Maryland is one of twenty six states nationally that permits both no-excuse absentee voting and in-person early voting. Under Maryland’s no-excuse absentee laws, voters are permitted to request and receive an absentee ballot for any reason. Maryland’s early voting provisions also offer a failsafe for any last-minute conflicts that might unexpectedly arise by functionally expanding Election Day to encompass the preceding week. For seven days leading up to the Thursday before the primary, any Maryland voter could arrive at their specific polling locations and cast a vote in person. When voters are not required to justify their absentee ballot request and have greater time to vote in person, more individuals facing non-traditional barriers can access the polls.

Of course, even if every state embraced these standards of accessibility in early voting, many voters would still risk having their votes wasted by casting an early ballot because of our vote-for-one system. If the candidate a voter chooses drops out before the day of the election--which has been likely, with so many candidates running this year on the GOP side-- the voter currently has no recourse to change their absentee ballot or indicate a second preference. In fact, FairVote finds that over 700,000 voters so far have cast votes for candidates who have already withdrawn from the race. See our detailed spreadsheet of popular vote totals in each state for more examples.

To ensure that these voters have their voices heard in the process even if their favorite candidate drops out, states should adopt ranked choice voting for their primary elections. Early and absentee voters could rank all candidates on the ballot, ensuring that their vote would count even if their first choice exited the race before election day. Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Alabama and Arkansas already use ranked choice voting for their military and overseas voters. Ranked choice voting used in conjunction with accessible early voting would pave the path to meaningful participation for more primary voters.

Image Source: Ben Schumin


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