WHAT DOES "Election Day" mean? Once, the answer was obvious: It signified the date - the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November - when Americans came together in public to choose their political leaders and reaffirm their common stake in democratic self-government.
But tens of millions of Americans no longer wait until November to vote. In much of the country, voters are permitted to cast their ballots a month or more in advance, either in person at designated early-voting polling places or by mail as "absentees." Over the course of just a few election cycles, one of our oldest political institutions has been all but overturned. In 1980, notes political scientist John Fortier of the American Enterprise Institute, some 4 million ballots were cast before Election Day. In 2004, there were 27 million. Thet number will go even higher this year.
Not every state has abandoned the communal tradition of Election Day. Massachusetts does not open polling stations early, and voters requesting an absentee ballot must have an excuse for not going to the polls in person. But the momentum is in the other direction. Oregon has done away with polling places entirely; 100 percent of its elections are conducted by mail. Close behind is Washington state, at more than 70 percent. Ohio jumped on the bandwagon for the first time this year, inviting residents to vote as early as Sept. 30 - even letting individuals register to vote and cast a ballot in the same visit if they showed up by Oct. 6.
The trend away from a unitary Election Day has long been cheered by those who want voting made more "convenient." Bill Clinton endorsed early voting during his reelection campaign in 1996. "A lot of people are busy," he said, "and it's hard for them to just get there and vote." BeAbsentee.org, a website created this year to encourage voting by mail, offers 10 reasons to embrace absentee ballots. Among them: "You have better things to do on Election Day," "You do not have to stand in line," and "It might rain on Election Day."
For voters truly unable to make it to the polls on Election Day, due to illness or travel, absentee ballots are a reasonable accommodation. But for most of us, getting to a local polling place once a year is far less onerous than getting to work or to school every day, or to the supermarket once a week. Anyone who can manage to take in an occasional ball game or go to the movies now and then can manage to vote in person on Election Day.
Are some citizens so uninterested in political affairs that they won't bother to cast a ballot unless they can do it from their living room couch, or are given a month-and-a-half to get around to it? Yes. But what is gained from encouraging such lazy or apathetic people to vote?
Especially pernicious is another of BeAbsentee's reasons to vote early: "You can make your decision and move on. Enough with this election already!"
In an age of "have-it-your-way" convenience, it may seem unreasonable to expect voters to wait until November to help choose a president, senator, or city councilor. Why not encourage them to vote in October or September or even August if they've made up their minds?
Here's why: Because voters who cast early ballots do so without benefit of all the information, analysis, and discussion that bloom in such profusion during the last weeks of an election campaign - the debates, the endorsements, the voter guides, the candidates' speeches, the heightened media attention.
What is significant about Election Day isn't so much the date itself; it's the focus that date provides for the process of democratic decision-making. No one thinks jurors should be allowed to render a verdict before hearing from the final witnesses and closing arguments. Theater critics don't skip the play's final act in order to write their review. For the same reason, Americans should vote on the first Tuesday in November, not whenever they're ready to "move on."
What does "Election Day" mean? It used to be the pinnacle of our civic religion, the gravely eloquent day when voting in America took place. Now it's just the day when voting comes to an end. Many changes are for the better, but this isn't one of them.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at email@example.com.