I suspect most voters watching Monday night's debate found it pretty boring. President Obama wanted to force Mitt Romney into saying something stupid. Romney didn't take the bait. So pretty much nothing changed the dynamics of the race.
But what if something did? What if Obama announced in a fit of pique that "America doesn't deserve a president as awesome as me"? Or what if Romney pulled open a panel in his chest revealing that he is, in fact, an android? And he was made in China!
Or the game-changer could have been something more plausible. The point is, what if something was said or done that caused large numbers of voters to change their minds? Well, for perhaps millions of voters it would be too late, thanks to early voting.
Fifteen percent of the electorate was eligible to vote before the first presidential debate -- a debate that did dramatically change the dynamic of this race. And 85 percent of voters were eligible to vote before Monday night's debate. This year, it's expected that something like 40 percent of ballots will be cast before Election Day.
Now, odds are that most of the people who voted already wouldn't have changed their minds, no matter what happened. Early-voting expert and George Mason University government professor Michael McDonald told the National Journal in late September that "the sorts of voters who are voting right now ... are people who have already made up their minds." He added, "They are hard-core partisans. Any more information you can throw at them is only going to reinforce their decision."
This is ironic, given that the aim of most election reformers (essentially the same folks who have made early voting legal in 32 states and the District of Columbia) is to defang partisanship. That's the supposed appeal of Australia's "vote or pay a fine" system. If you force everyone to vote, goes the argument, you're less likely to run a "base campaign" because you know your base will vote for you anyway.
Early voting, on the other hand, encourages campaigns to preach to the choir. Normally, it's Republicans who excel at this. But this year, President Obama has taken the lead. His "war on women" malarkey, his Big Bird and "binders" rhetoric -- not to mention Joe Biden's claim to a largely black audience in August that Mitt Romney's tax policies will put "y'all in chains" -- is designed entirely to get the base to send in their ballots now. Early voting amounts to a subsidy for partisans.
I think mandatory voting is an abomination, and I don't lose any sleep over the influence partisans have on U.S. elections. But early voting still strikes me as a terrible idea.