Eliot Cutler somehow got his hands on a Wall Street Journal op-ed spot, and decided the most valuable topic he could think of to write about was how absentee voters “stole” the election from him. (I guess that explains the sad email his campaign sent out a couple days before the election with instructions on how to change your absentee vote.)
While there is a legitimate discussion to be had about potential problems with the early voting system, that is not what Cutler did in his piece. Instead, he alleges that early voting cost him the election, and gives two completely contradictory reasons for his conclusion. According to Cutler, on the one hand, early and absentee voting encourages voter disengagement. Yet at the same time, absentee ballots also somehow manage to whip up party fervor. Pretty remarkable accomplishments for a piece of paper.
His evidence for his far-fetched claims? Apparently, a few anecdotes from the campaign trail involving voters who, when he asked for their vote, regretfully told him that they had already cast their ballot.
Beyond the supreme egotism and naïveté of assuming that these people were suddenly transformed into Cutler true believers who genuinely repented their errant vote, Cutler’s conclusion flies in the face of everything we know about absentee voter behavior. Here’s why he’s wrong on both counts:
To start off a little easy on poor Eliot, he is right about one thing, that relatively disengaged and apathetic voters who somehow found themselves at the polls on Election Day and wanted a middle ground between Liberal Libby and “Paint The State Red” LePage were likely to vote for him. Where he’s wrong is assuming that those people were early voting in droves for Paul LePage or Libby Mitchell. For the most part, voters that fit that description either vote on Election Day out of some vague sense of civic duty, or don’t vote at all.
After hypothesizing that completely clueless voters who voted absentee simply because a “slick direct mail piece” showed up in their mailbox would have suddenly taken it upon themselves to meticulously research and evaluate all of the candidates in the final weeks before Election Day, Cutler says that the next problem with early voting is that it encourages partisanship. His evidence for this is that the two major political parties send these “slick direct mail pieces” to hapless voters who feel pressured by the bright colors and cool graphics to fill out the attached ballot and mail it in. Of course this encourages partisan voting – among people already enrolled in a political party. See Eliot, these slick mailers are expensive, so parties only bother sending them to people who have a high likelihood of filling them out and returning them, which means people already enrolled in that particular party, and highly targeted segments at that, such as the elderly and very rural.
The fact is that the majority of people who vote absentee are doing it for the right reasons – they are elderly and have trouble getting places, are living short term out-of-state, live in extremely rural areas and have to drive a significant distance to the polls, or they are serving our country overseas.
So if indeed absentee votes interfered with a Cutler victory, it was because without mail-in ballots a significant group of elderly, rural, and military citizens who generally trend Republican, and college students who generally trend Democratic, wouldn’t have been able to vote. Is it possible that without these LePage and Mitchell votes, Cutler could have squeaked by to a win? Sure, but that has nothing to do with the absentee voter disengagement and disinformation he alleges in his article.
What we are left with is a sore loser who sank a ton of money into a campaign that was based on trying to pull the wool over the eyes of Mainers about who he really was. The fact that Cutler goes out of his way in his article to ensure readers that his complaints aren’t “sour grapes” only confirms this. As some readers may know, I worked for Bruce Poliquin’s campaign during the GOP primary, so I’ve seen close-up what it looks like to face defeat with dignity and class, and I can ensure Mr. Cutler that this whiny article does neither.