By Rachel Ann Hicks

Long lines at polling places made big headlines last election cycle. Though remarkable, many expected the unusual Election Day waits which were caused by a record number of Americans participating in the democratic process.

More surprising though were the pre-Election Day polling lines: due to the new national trend known as in-person early voting, thousands of Americans lined up to vote before Election Day.

Like voters in Arkansas, Georgia, and Tennessee, Mississippi should join in and adopt in-person early voting because it will improve democratic participation -- and, therefore, democracy -- in Mississippi.

Despite experiencing our highest voter turnout during the last presidential election cycle, Mississippi’s rate of voter participation still leaves us below the national average for 2008. Historically, the news is even worse. Turnout statistics from the last two midterm elections, 2002 and 2006, show Mississippi ranked last or next to last nationally. Although more Mississippians vote in our gubernatorial election years than in midterm election years, voter participation in these important state races lags that of states whose officials are elected in the same year as the president.

Low voter turnout sends a signal to our elected officials that they do not need to be accountable to all of their constituents. Unless all registered voters express their desires through the ballot box, we undermine a fundamental principle of American democracy -- that our government is “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Currently, Mississippi only allows absentee voting, in which the voter is required to give a reason for not voting on Election Day. While absentee voting must continue in Mississippi for voters with extended absences from the state, early voting has distinct advantages. Not only are early voters not required to state a reason for voting before Election Day, they also cast the same ballot (on the same equipment) available to their precinct’s Election Day voters, rather than an absentee ballot.

Furthermore, according to the Early Voting Information Center, states with early voting report high levels of voter satisfaction with the process; many early voters identify convenience as their primary reason for supporting the procedure. Lengthening the time that voters may cast a regular ballot increases the convenience of voting both by allowing voters more flexibility in their schedules and by shortening the lines on Election Day. Working Mississippians, who may find it difficult to stand in long lines on one specific day in the middle of the week, may find the convenience of early voting particularly appealing.

In fact, early voting is most likely to impact Mississippi’s elections for state and local office, the very elections that most deeply affect our day-to-day lives. Researchers find that though early voting does not increase participation rates among new voters, it may increase turnout in lower-intensity elections among regular voters — voters who regularly vote in presidential elections. Increasing the convenience of voting may increase turnout in important state and local elections that do not fall on presidential election years.

Mississippi needs early voting. Because early voters are no more likely to be Democrats or Republicans, early voting is not about empowering a particular political party but about empowering the electorate. With a more engaged citizenry, Mississippians can expect a more responsive and effective government. It’s time for our state leaders to support early voting: it’s good for Mississippi’s democracy.
Hicks is the executive director of Mississippi First, a civic advocacy organization.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Mississippi Forum 9/09