What if there’s late news during early voting?
“I went to Sacramento this week and came back, and my mailbox was stuffed full of mailers.”
Bill Bilyeu, a Reno attorney and former state legislator, was pointing out that early voting was nearly completed by the time most of those political mailings showed up in mail boxes.
By the time early voting in Washoe County ended Friday, almost 16,000 people had voted. The early voting process is inevitably described in news coverage as an encouraging sign of civic involvement. But there are downsides.
People who vote early do not have the information that people who vote on Election Day have, and late-breaking developments in election campaigns are commonplace.
Early voting can wreak havoc with candidates’ planning, and it is a particular problem for less-well-heeled candidates. Candidates with limited funds were once able to marshal their resources for a push at the end of a campaign. Now they may have to sustain a heavy schedule of broadcast advertising during a 14-day early voting window in order to remain at all competitive. Early voting can empty a campaign treasury fast.
Even for those with substantial funds, it’s dicey. U.S. House candidate Dawn Gibbons, for instance, started her television advertising close to the start of early voting. That meant she missed the window for the most recent public opinion survey, with the result that she fell into second place.
Several candidates this year waited until after the early voting period started to start running their TV spots. And one candidate was slow to react to attack spots against him. “I think [Sharron] Angle’s stuff on Dean [Heller] has been very effective,” Bilyeu says, referring to two U.S. House candidates, “and I didn’t hear any response to it.” Heller finally started a response spot running the weekend early voting ended.
Early voting began on July 29, and a debate in the governor’s race on KNPB didn’t air until Aug. 7. By then, 8,225 people had voted in the county. Two television debates, in the governor’s and U.S. House races, were not even taped until Aug. 9 and 11. That’s 11 and 13 days after voting started. On the date of the first taping, 11,453 people in Washoe County had already voted. By the second taping, 15,440 had voted.
On Aug. 8, Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt’s campaign issued a press release announcing a news conference in Sparks at which she intended to make a case against Jim Gibbons: “With one week to go before the Nevada Republican Primary Election,” it began. In fact, the primary election had begun nine days earlier. By the time Hunt’s news conference was held in Sparks, more than 7,000 people in Washoe County had voted.
This newspaper ran stories about races in which people had already voted. One television station referred to the primary election “next Tuesday” when the primary had actually begun 10 days earlier.
Instances of late-breaking developments that affected elections are not hard to come by:
• In the 1964 election, the world literally changed in fundamental ways in the last days of the campaign. On Oct. 15, Nikita Khrushchev was deposed as Soviet leader, a top U.S. presidential aide was arrested on a morals charge, and China became a nuclear power.
• In 1974, a third-party candidate for governor of Nevada, James Ray Houston, was pumping such huge amounts of money into the campaign that he became a major contender. Opinion surveys toward the end of the campaign showed him draining a lot of votes away from the Republican candidate and even coming in second in the race. Then on Nov. 4, the day before the election, the Las Vegas Sun ran a story headlined, “Houston’s money scheme has no ‘silver’ lining.” The story revealed that Houston’s private business was a fraud and on the verge of collapse. Houston came in third and he was soon a fugitive from justice.
• On Oct. 31, 1976, two days before the election, an African American minister named Clennon King was refused admittance to services at Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter’s Baptist church in Plains, Ga., because the church had a rule adopted by the deacons barring “Negroes or any other civil right agitators.”
• In 2000, four days before the election, Fox News reported that George Bush had been arrested for drunk driving in 1976. By then there was early voting in Nevada, and those who voted early found out about it too late to figure it and Bush’s handling of the revelation into their vote reasoning.
News coverage, particularly on television, almost never provides information on the downside of early voting. Such coverage has an upbeat, boosterish tone that rarely allows the voters to know that there are hazards in early voting.
“While I do agree with the concept of having voting on more than one day, I think that the period of time in which we permit early voting is far too long," Bilyeu says.