WASHINGTON -- The neighbors gathered in Sandy's drizzly aftermath, surveying the damage: tree limbs crushing the roof of a car, telephone poles snapped in half, power lines strewn across the street. It was, for all the unpleasant circumstances, a nice communal moment. And it made me think, oddly enough, about what it is that bothers me about early voting.
More precisely, it reminded me about what I like about Election Day --the neighborly lines at the local elementary school, the sense of common purpose, the we're-all-in-this-together ritual of the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. I like wearing my corny "I voted" sticker on Election Day. I like seeing yours.
Early voting is the civic manifestation of the modern age: fragmented, individualistic and solitary. Once we all saw the same television show at the same time; now, we watch "Modern Family" whenever it is most convenient. We withdraw our cash from a machine when we need it, rather than racing to the bank before it closes. We scan our groceries as we shop and check out on our own.
Like early voting, these are conveniences of modern life. And we are, on balance, better off for the advent of early voting as much as for the ATM and DVR. Not everyone can make it to the polls on Election Day. Not everyone can afford to be late to work in the event of long lines.
In what early voting expert Paul Gronke of Reed College has termed a "quiet revolution" in American politics, the country no longer has Election Day -- we have Election Month.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 32 states and the District of Columbia now allow in-person early voting, beginning, on average, 22 days before the election. In addition, and almost entirely overlapping, 27 states plus the District have no-excuse absentee voting. Two states -- Washington and Oregon -- conduct elections entirely by mail.
The result has been a surge in early voting -- to 30 percent of voters in 2008. Michael McDonald of George Mason University predicts this share could rise to 35 percent this year; several states, including Maryland, Louisiana, Iowa and Montana, have already exceeded their 2008 numbers. In battleground states where both parties have been pushing early voting, well over half the vote could come in early.
Initial studies raised questions about whether early voting increased turnout or simply shifted the time that voters cast their ballots. But given candidates' emphasis on early voting in recent elections -- the Obama campaign targeted them in 2008 and the Romney campaign is trying to catch up to Democrats this year -- it seems likely that early voting is boosting turnout.
I would support early voting even if it didn't, for the same reason that I support laws requiring restaurants to post calorie counts even without conclusive evidence that such information helps reduce obesity levels. Consumers should have access to nutrition information to consider as they wish. Voters should be able to turn up early if that is convenient for them.
Some states do begin their early voting disconcertingly early -- up to 45 days before the election. Does too-early voting matter, potentially depriving voters of information that could have affected their decision?
Probably not much this year, when so many voters were so settled on their choice. In addition, most early voters, even in truly early bird states, wait until close to Election Day. The earliest among them are probably the most energized partisans, unlikely to be swayed by new information.
If it were up to me, I would condense the early voting time to perhaps two weeks out, and also rejigger the presidential debate calendar so that the debates take place before most early voting starts.
This year, by the time the final debate took place on Oct. 22, early voting had commenced in all but five of the states that permit it, although in some cases just barely. That's unfortunate. Voting on the basis of more information is better than voting on the basis of less.
Early voting has begun in my state of Maryland, and I considered taking advantage of it -- now, that is, that we have our power back. But I've decided to hold off until Election Day, lines and all. I can swap Sandy stories with my neighbors while I wait, and feel part of the quadrennial ritual, however anachronistic.
Ruth Marcus' email address is email@example.com.Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group