Precounts, early voting change game

I spotted a new word this week that may soon be a stock part of the jargon of elections: precount. The context in which the word was coined was more general, describing the sum of events leading up to the election. But the term may soon have a more precise mathematical meaning if Professor Michael McDonald of George Mason University lures more of us to his early voting website .

Professor McDonald is letting the whole world in on the secrets of early-voting tabulations. We now have “precounts” of tantalizing data that may provide early insights into the election outcome. We know, for example, how many voters casting early ballots in North Carolina were Democrats, Republicans and independents. We also know how many absentee ballot requests have been submitted by Tar Heel partisans.

The bottom line as of Tuesday: Fifty-five percent of North Carolina votes cast early came from Democrats.

Once, only campaign insiders saw these reports. Earlier in this cycle, I got a chance to look at absentee voter requests for Florida. Those data bode well for Republicans. But will early walk-in voting also favor Republicans in the Sunshine State? The first day’s results, reported on the professor’s site, weren’t encouraging. Early data from Nevada did not look so good either. Democrats there are working the early-voting angle with a vengeance, according to news reports and fragments of data starting to trickle out.

The availability of early-voting results, arguably harder data than pollsters provide, can change last-minute strategies. States that were “in play” as swing states on Oct. 20 might be abandoned in the last week, based just on the first week of early-voting patterns.

You don’t need to get into full precount mode to realize that the expansion of early voting and relaxed standards for absentee or mail-back voting is changing everything. Campaigns have to operate differently.

Broadcast media advertising campaign blitzes, once backloaded to the last week, have to be launched three to four weeks before Election Day.

Precinct sign-wavers and poll-watchers, once called upon just for Election Day, need to be on duty every day for weeks.

Phone banks, once cranked up in the last 72 hours, now must operate for a month.

Campaigns have to staff up to chase a growing number of absentee voters and to monitor early-voting trends.

All this campaigning for a longer period of time costs a lot more money. And it’s happening at the same that it gets more expensive to campaign even the old-fashioned ways and even as campaign finance limits conspire with inflation to squeeze campaign budgets.

Don’t read me wrong. I don’t oppose early voting. It has many benefits. But campaign finance reformers need to recognize that campaigns are being strangled by the present regulations in an early-voting world.

Evidently Barack Obama saw this coming and wisely opted out of the federal system restraints.

The early-voting trend also presents ethical and methodological conundrums as it relates to polling. Do we ask voters who have already cast their ballots how they voted? Is this not violating the secrecy of their ballot?

Of course, voters don’t have to answer the pollster’s questions. But if significant percentages of those polled choose to keep their ballot secret, how can we know that the ballots of those who do disclose their choice reflect the results of those who keep theirs secret? And even if every early voter chose to reveal his or her ballot, would it be appropriate to report those results publicly?

Exit polls have generally been loath to release their results before the polls close in a state. If you publicly release “pre-election” poll results in which half of those polled have already cast their ballots, aren’t you revealing more than you should?


Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.