Early / absentee voting in the US: why the east / west divide?

Per the map at this site, virtually all of the states in the western half of the US offer both early voting and no-excuse absentee voting, except for a couple that sidestep the issue by having people vote entirely by mail. Some Eastern states also offer these options (or at least one of them), but it seems to be noticeably less common. There’s a visible dividing line on the map, running from the Minnesota / Dakotas border on south.

This isn’t the pattern I would have expected to see, if you’d asked me to guess: it pretty clearly does not map onto Democratic vs. Republican states, for example, at least not in any very obvious way. And, at least in the Eastern half of the map, there are some states that seem to have fairly similar demographics but very different laws. So, whence the pattern? My only guess is that it might have something to do with population density and people having to drive a long way to vote, but that is pure speculation on my part.

I would place most of the “grey states” in one of two categories–states with a strong legacy of machine politics (NY, PA, MI, MA) or states with traditionalist political cultures generally resistant to change (KY, SC, MS). Machine politicians often prefer single-day voting because they pride themselves on their ability to produce larger and better-organized get-out-the-vote drives than their opponents.

Machine cultures are most prevalent in the northeast (most of the west urbanized, if at all, long after the heyday of machine politics), and traditionalist cultures most prevalent in the southeast; hence they combine for an east-west split.

It does map fairly well onto areas that get annoyed by the election being called while their polls are still open. By allowing no-excuse absentee and/or early voting, people can vote before this happens, even if they have to work on election day and otherwise would not vote until after. Not saying that this is the only reason, but I’m sure it’s a factor.

BTW, vote-by-mail is not so much a sidestepping as enforcing absentee voting on everyone. The ballots are sent out about 3 weeks before election day and they can be returned any time up to election day. So those can be considered early-voting states for all practical purposes. (Looking around for info on this topic, I noticed that some maps had the two states with vote-by-mail as not having early voting.)

Aha! Looking at the map again, I see that it’s pretty much an “every state west of here is at least partly in the Mountain or Pacific time zone” line, so I bet that’s it.

Nah, I think Freddy the Pig is closer to right. It’s basically states that have histories of populist electoral reform versus ones where the party establishments held power. That map looks very similar to that of states that allow initiatives or referendums and recall elections. I’d imagine if you mapped things like open primaries you’d see similar trends.

It is interesting that this sort of attitude towards direct democracy seems to more or less cut across the modern political divides. These sorts of issues WERE the big political divide in the late 19th and early 20th century, or at least a big part of it. It’s interesting that those old battle lines still appear to be there, even though the modern red state/blue state boundaries are now superimposed on top of them. I’d say it’s just a legacy thing, but absentee voting is relatively new and it seems to still be following the same party establishment versus reformer lines it did a hundred years ago.

Same reason the West tends to have more things like elected judges and ballot initiatives and vote-by-mail - as younger states, they have more progressive (in the traditional sense of the word) political cultures. And they were born during the progressive era.

Progressive, not populist (though the populist movement did embrace progressive ideas).

Population density probably also has something to do with it. If your polling place is two blocks away, you can probably schedule some time for it on Election Day, but if it’s far enough that going there and back takes up the better part of the day, you’d prefer to be able to do it at your convenience, or by mail.

I meant it in the lower-case sense, just as an adjective.


(If I were you, I would have used lower-case “progressive” instead. But I’m not you.)

Well, see, the trouble there is that lower-case progressive has implications in the modern political parlance. Many of the states that embrace all of these direct democracy reforms are quite emphatically not progressive in the modern sense. The word “populist” seems to fit better (despite confusion with the capital P Populists) because the idea of devolution of power to the voters is something that appears on both sides of the modern divide.

Well, you could have just said that instead. :wink:

Well, that might be the reason why every state in the west has it, and not just most of them.

I agree with others in that there’s a strong (lowercase) populist thing involved. But note that other populist issues don’t usually get such unanimity among western states. Medical marijuana, for example, started in the west and most western states have it. But there’s several exceptions (Idaho, Wyoming and Utah). So the timezone factor may be what put it over the top as well as pushed it out into the Great Plains states (none of which have MM).

That map is wrong for Minnesota.
We do have no-excuse absentee voting, so Minnesota should be colored yellow.

That’s a fairly recent change in the law, but in effect, it’s been there for years: back when an excuse was required, one of the acceptable ones was “will be out of the precinct on election day”. Since it didn’t specify any requirement of how long you were “out of the precinct”, if you expected to leave the precinct at any time on election day, say to go to work or to a movie or to get groceries, you could legitimately use the “out of precinct” excuse to request an absentee ballot. And even if you happened to not leave the precinct on election day, no election official ever checked anuway.

There’s an update on the site describing the change in the law, they just haven’t colored the map differently.

Thanks for the replies, everyone! I had no idea this had such deep historical roots.

Well, in Texas, you could go grocery shopping AND cast your vote at the same time and place for weeks before the election.

I almost never vote on Election Day. It’s almost always easier to vote at the supermarket in October.

So, since it’s easy to vote, turnout has soared, right? Wrong. For some reason, the easier they make it to vote, the less people actually DO vote.