Early voting, late news
People who voted early missed a lot in the general election campaign
The day before the election, Jim Richardson, a university professor and former opinion pollster, sounded a bit rueful in mentioning that he had voted early.
“Personally, it’s very convenient, and I’ve already done it.” He laughed. “But I found myself wondering as these stories were breaking.”
Never were the hazards of voting early more clear, particularly in Northern Nevada.
In the last three weeks of the campaign, three different major stories unfolded about Republican candidate for governor Jim Gibbons. Those stories, and the reactions to them of Gibbons and his Democratic opponent Dina Titus, told voters a lot about the candidates.
Early voting started on Oct. 21. The Friday the 13th incident involving Gibbons and a cocktail waitress had already occurred but had been mostly ignored by journalists in the north—and when they did report on it, it was trivialized. In late October, one Reno television newsman said it had “run its course” just as it exploded into a bigger story.
By the time northern media entities, under attack for hushing the story up, started gearing up to give it major attention, thousands of Washoe County residents had already voted.
The second scandal broke the evening of Oct. 25 on KLAS News in Las Vegas. The station’s George Knapp reported that Jim and Dawn Gibbons had employed an illegal alien as a housekeeper. Knapp produced substantial documentary evidence. By that time, 11,095 people had voted in Washoe County.
The third scandal came with the lead front-page story in the Wall Street Journal on Nov. 1. The Journal reported that Gibbons had aided a pal’s tiny company in obtaining huge defense contracts while accepting large sums in campaign contributions and other goodies, such as a Caribbean cruise, and had done it under the cover of the “black budget” of intelligence agencies, which is supposed to be kept confidential for security reasons rather than to protect political clout. That story, too, came with documentation. By the time the Journal story appeared, 25,904 people had voted in Washoe County.
Richardson said the only ones who should vote early are people who are utterly certain that their decisions are final—"but if they’re undecided, they need to wait ’til the last and hear everything.”
Analysts believe that most voters tend to be undecided relatively late, with mainly policy wonks, die-hard partisans or ideologues likely to have the certainty Richardson describes.
“It is possible these late-breaking events would have jarred some Gibbons voters loose and caused them to take another look at his opponent,” Richardson said. “When you get your picture on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, that’s big news. … The Wall Street Journal thing was pretty jarring … that story could have shaken some people loose who are disgusted with what’s going on in Washington but think it could never impact their congressman.”
Republicans benefited from early voting this time, but in other elections, late-breaking news has reflected poorly on Democrats.
Early voting has been seen as a way to increase turnout and some believe it tends to help Democrats, but reliable research supporting either assertion is not yet available. In Maryland, Republicans opposed early voting, GOP Gov. Robert Ehrlich unsuccessfully vetoed it, and there was a lawsuit to try to stop it.
One blog, crushliberalism.blogspot.com, had an online discussion of whether early voting is illegal since the federal constitution requires that federal officials be elected on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. The conclusion at the site was that since the courts have upheld the legality of absentee ballots, they would be likely to also uphold the legality of early voting.
News coverage of early voting, particularly on television, tends to be boosterish and rarely reports on the pitfalls of the practice.