The Big Problem With Early Voting

Imagine that you’ve somehow found yourself on trial, mistakenly accused of some criminal act that you would never even think

Imagine that you’ve somehow found yourself on trial, mistakenly accused of some criminal act that you would never even think about committing. A guilty verdict will destroy your good name and send you away to a very bad place.

When the trial opens, the eager prosecutor lays out the case, an avalanche of seemingly damning—but, in actuality, entirely circumstantial—evidence. You stew at the defense table, aching for a chance to respond.

But before your moment arrives, the 12 jurors decide they’ve heard enough. With the trial still ongoing, they each cast early “guilty” verdicts. When you finally take the stand and prove—like a scene out of Matlock—that you’ve been wrongly accused, the jurors are all far away from the courtroom, back at their jobs or maybe just lounging around at home. You lose.

Welcome to the maddening world of early voting, a well-intentioned concept that has exploded in popularity while fundamentally undermining the fairness of elections. Its impact has never been more dramatic, and its consequences more far-reaching, than in this year’s Democratic presidential race.

It started in New Hampshire, where Hillary Clinton abruptly ended her post-Iowa free­fall with a stunning two-point win over Barack Obama, a verdict that was—in part—a testament to the former first lady’s steely nerve and pluck.

But it was also a powerful illustration of the impact of early voting. As Nick Clemons, Mrs. Clinton’s chief organizer in the state, later explained, a key element of the Clinton New Hampshire strategy involved pushing likely Clinton voters to cast absentee ballots a month before the primary—“to get their votes,” as Mr. Clemons put it, “before Iowa even happened.”

In effect, the campaign ended before Christmas for some New Hampshire voters, while the rest cast their ballots only after watching each candidate handle the stresses and challenges of the chaotic five-day sprint between Iowa and New Hampshire.

Maybe this made no difference at all—perhaps the early Clinton voters were so committed that nothing would have changed their minds. Or maybe it cost Mr. Obama, whose message gained newfound credibility with his victory in Iowa. You could even argue that it hurt Mrs. Clinton—that the early voters for other candidates might have been so moved by her performance in the final days of the New Hampshire campaign that they would have shifted their allegiance to her.

The point is that early voting meant that two different electorates made up their minds after watching two very different campaigns. This is a violation of the democratic spirit, which demands that all voters have access to the same basic information before rendering their judgments.

And New Hampshire is hardly the only—or the worst—problem.

In California, the crown jewel of the Clinton campaign’s Super Tuesday successes, polls showed Mr. Obama erasing what had been a stubborn yearlong gap in the final days of the campaign. Exit polls—which, admittedly, have not been too reliable of late—actually put him five points ahead on primary day.

But Mrs. Clinton won in a rout, by nearly 400,000 votes. Why? It probably had something to do with the two million early votes—half of all ballots cast statewide—some nearly a month before the actual primary. Those early votes were cast when Mrs. Clinton was still sitting on the lopsided lead in the state—one she’d held from the very beginning of the campaign.

Only when the primary approached did California’s poll numbers begin to fluctuate, indicating that voters were becoming more engaged and less responsive to mere name recognition. But it was too late: Mrs. Clinton had already won the race with early votes.

The same thing happened in Florida, where Mrs. Clinton scored a commanding 17-point victory over Mr. Obama, something she and her campaign haven’t stopped trumpeting. That result comes with numerous asterisks—Florida’s “outlaw” primary meant that Mr. Obama never campaigned or spent money in the state—but chief among them is the discrepancy between early votes and primary day results. One-quarter of Florida’s ballots were cast in advance of the primary, overwhelmingly for Mrs. Clinton, while exit polls showed a tight Clinton-Obama race on primary day.

Similar patterns have played out in Tennessee, New Jersey and Arizona, where late Obama charges were—at least in part—turned back by early voting. And who knows? Maybe Mrs. Clinton herself was a victim of early ballots in Illinois and Utah, Obama states that also allow rampant early voting.

Increasing voter participation is a worthy aim, and there are some common-sense steps—like holding elections on Saturdays and expanding the number of polling stations—that ought to be considered.

But it surely isn’t a healthy thing for an election to be decided weeks before the campaign is over.

The Big Problem With Early Voting