In following the implementation of extended voting throughout the country, most attention has been paid to the long lines that people were forced to endure because systems were not yet adequate to handle the influx of voters seeking to ensure that their ballots were counted.
But that is a temporary condition that can be easily addressed in time for the next cycle of voting. What has gone almost unnoticed is this: extended voting mitigates a key factor in shaping the electorate -- weather.
A brilliant new paper by political scientists Brad Gomez, Tom Hansford and George Krause -- The Republicans Should Pray for Rain: Weather, Turnout, and Voting in U.S. Presidential Elections -- based on gathering and analyzing a massive amount of voting and weather data since 1948, shows that weather has historically had a profound effect on electoral outcomes.
Had there been rain instead of clear skies in 1960, the authors demonstrate, Richard Nixon would have defeated John Kennedy. Had weather been nicer in the Florida Panhandle in 2000, they show, Al Gore would have triumphed over George Bush.
These are not insignificant effects. The weather really matters, by preventing lower-income people and minorities who depend on public transportation from making it to the polls. Weather can significantly determine who votes on election day.
It is too early to fully analyze, state by state, the impact of extended voting - by comparing the results of the vote before election day to the vote on election day. But it is likely that analysis will demonstrate that extended voting will have significantly boosted the number of lower-income, low-propensity voters whose participation has historically been most sensitive to weather.
In other words, by mitigating the effect of weather, extended voting has altered the electoral landscape. No wonder Fred Barnes and other conservative Republicans are so upset about early and extended voting: it robs them of an unfair advantage they have long enjoyed.
Extended voting is not, by any means, the only significant change brought about by the 2008 election. As Adam Nagourney observed in the New York Times, this election has "rewritten the rules on how to reach voters, raise money, organize supporters, manage the news media, track and mold public opinion, and wage -- and withstand -- political attacks, including many carried by blogs that did not exist four years ago."
But as important - perhaps even more so - is the effect of extended voting, without which all the voter-registration drives and voter contact might never have been able to deliver.