All of this John Edwards business has got me thinking about early voting. I am registered to vote in Texas, where Election Codes 81.001 and 82.005 specify that I can ”vote early” – up to seventeen days before any federal election. Say, hypothetically, that John Edwards had rallied for a victory in South Carolina and was a viable candidate on the Texas Democratic Primary. Say that one day before the election – on March 3 – the Rielle Hunter story had broken. Say, for the sake of argument, that I had voted early, for John Edwards, on March 1.
I would wish that I could take my vote back. But is there a constitutional claim imbedded in my (hypothetical) buyer’s remorse?
On cursory inspection, the Constitution appears to answer this question by reserving the dating of elections as a power of the states. Article 1, Section 4 provides:
Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.
But in 1999, the Voting Integrity Project brought suit against the Secretary of State of Texas in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, alleging that portions of Texas Election Code pursuant to early voting violated 2 USC 7, which states:
“Tuesday next after the 1st Monday in November, in every even numbered year, is established as the day for the election, in each of the States…of the United States, of Representatives and Delegates to the Congress…”
In Voting Integrity Project v. Bomer (99-20757), the District Court denied VIP’s motion for summary judgment and, on appeal in 199 F.3d 773 (5th Cir. 2000 00:00:00), the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court declined to review the decision.
The Fifth Circuit’s decision is a fascinating read that draws heavily on Foster v. Love 522 U.S. 67 and U.S. v. Classic 313 U.S. 299. The decision provides three basic reasons why early voting is not de facto unconstitutional.
Because the election of federal representatives in Texas is not decided or “consummated” before federal election day, the Texas scheme is not inconsistent with the federal election statutes as interpreted by the court in Foster.
Second, the Court could not
“logically hold that Texas’ system of unrestricted advanced voting violates federal law without also finding that absentee balloting–which occurs in every state– violates federal law.
And, finally, the Court could not
conceive that Congress intended the federal election day statutes to have the effect of impeding citizens in exercising their right to vote.
There is certainly a lot of room for debate here, and I would be very curious to see what the Supreme Court would have to say. Clearly the bulk of the decision is in the Court’s first point. The second reason occurs to me as something of a cop out, not really speaking to the issue at hand. The third reason seems backwards: is it not true that the right to vote is best exercised when the most information is available? If not, why not just vote in all states on a rolling basis? After all, having an “election day” or even an “election period” (ie: an election day preceded by two weeks of early voting) inherently impedes the right to vote by making it impossible to vote outside of these temporal boundaries.
The Court’s first justification rests entirely on Foster’s definition of “election”; specifically it calls into question whether the act of voting is completed upon the casting of a vote or upon its counting. If the Court had interpreted the act of voting to be complete upon its casting, then I firmly believe they would’ve overturned the District Court. This surely would’ve generated a lot of media attention, and might have given the case a better chance of being heard by the SCOTUS. The stare decisis inherent in the Circuit Court’s deferral to Foster is palpable, and, at times, the decision itself seems to beg for higher review. For example, the entire crux of the decision depends on an interpretation of “the final act of voting,” yet the majority opinion itself notes that
there is room for argument about just what may constitute the final act of selection within the meaning of the law [emphasis mine]
For now, most of the debate surrounding early voting is happening in the states. In 2006, a Maryland Circuit Court Judge for Anne Arundel County ruled that early voting violated a provision of the state constitution that called for all elections to be held on the same, “election day.” Connecticut has had similar debates, and a few people on the internet have recently been calling for a cases similar to VIP to be filed in other states. I, for one, think something like the hypothetical I described earlier would bring some much needed attention to the issue. But unless Obama’s been unfaithful to Michelle, this is just an interesting what if.