Nearly one in four voters will have cast their ballot before Election Day, but I won't be one of them. Nothing but grave illness could keep me from the polls on Nov. 2. I've never missed voting in a general election since 1968. And in all those years, I voted absentee only once, when my job took me out of town on Election Day.
If I sound a bit self-righteous on the subject, it's because I am. I don't believe that the trend toward early voting -- embraced by both Republicans and Democrats -- is a good thing. It eliminates an important public exercise of civic duty, one that helps build a sense of community and responsibility.
Election Day is the only time citizens come together in their communities in one place at one time to engage in an important civic activity. When I go to the polls on Tuesday, I will see my neighbors, meet political volunteers, and judge for myself how well election officials are handling their duties.
Since this is a non-presidential year, the lines probably won't be long at my polling place -- Hillsboro Elementary School in Loudoun County, Va. But I've stood in plenty of lines at the polling place in other years and other places. It's not always convenient or comfortable, especially during inclement weather, but I've always believed that the least I could do as an American is to show up and vote.
There's something special about entering the polling booth, even though the curtains are now gone, as is the old lever you used to pull to mark your ballot. Now there are computer screens that make it seem more like a visit to the ATM. But no matter what the technology, there's still that moment of truth when you make a decision that really matters. There have been times when I found the decision difficult, like the first time I voted for a Republican, Ronald Reagan, or cast a vote for someone I thought was simply the lesser of two unappealing candidates.
But at least I could rest assured when I cast my vote that everyone else there on that day had access to the same information on the candidate as I did, even if they didn't avail themselves of it. But that isn't the case when voters cast their ballots over several days or even weeks.
Much can happen in the waning days of an election, especially in tight races. New information about a candidate can come to light. A candidate may do or say something foolish or desperate, which cast doubts on his or her character. Some outside event can alter the stakes in an election. But if you've already cast your ballot, you won't be able to take this information into account.
In this election alone, we've seen Alaska Republican Senate nominee Joe Miller admit this week that he lied to federal investigators about his use of government computers for political purposes. The admission has made it far more likely that incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who lost the Republican primary to Miller and is running as a write-in candidate, may win the election. But Alaska is one of 32 states and the District of Columbia that allows early voting -- so Alaskans who've already voted will not have had the opportunity to weigh this new information.
The major argument in favor of early voting was that the added convenience would encourage more Americans to vote. The United States has notoriously poor voter participation -- only 62 percent of eligible voters turned out in 2008 and even fewer in 2006, about 40 percent. The availability of early voting in many states has done little to improve voter participation, which are still lower than they were in the 1960s when voter registration laws were tighter and absentee ballots more difficult to obtain. Those who tend to vote early are the very people who would vote on Election Day -- namely older voters.
Choosing our elected officials is the most important thing we do as Americans. Is it really too much to ask that we set aside a few minutes every two years to go to the polls and cast our vote?