In Iowa, voters will begin casting ballots a week before the first scheduled debate between President Bush and his Democratic rival, Sen. John F. Kerry. In Arizona, campaign officials for both candidates estimate that half the state's votes will be cast before Election Day. And there will not be any polls open Nov. 2 in Oregon, because the only way to vote in that state is by mail.
These battleground states are part of a national trend that offers voters an alternative to standing in lines at the polls. Thirty states allow residents to cast their vote early, either in person or by mail, and do not require voters to provide a reason. An additional 10 states, including Maryland and Virginia, have policies that allow voters to cast absentee ballots for a variety of reasons, such as a long commute.
"A revolution has taken place," said Brian Lundy, founder of Helping Americans Vote, a group aiding businesses and trade associations in educating their employees about the new laws. "The concept of Election Day is history. Now it's just the final day to vote."
The number of states that offer no-excuse early voting has nearly tripled in the past eight years, fueled in part by the demand for election changes that followed the deadlocked 2000 presidential race. Early voting is transforming the way campaigns do business, and because this presidential race is so closely contested, it could have a significant impact on the outcome.
In some battleground states, voting will commence nearly six weeks before Election Day. For the Bush and Kerry campaigns, that means an earlier start to television, radio and mail advertising, adding to the campaign's overall cost.
"If you wait until Election Day, you've missed the first half of the vote," said Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D), who credits her 2002 victory to an aggressive early vote campaign.
Supporters tout early voting as a way to reverse declining voter turnout. In 2000, only about a third of those registered to vote cast ballots, with more than 50 million opting not to exercise their constitutional right.
In states that offer early voting, the record shows that the convenience has had a modest impact on turnout. It does not turn nonregistered voters into voters, studies show. What it does do, said Michael W. Traugott, a University of Michigan political science professor who has studied the impact of early voting in Oregon, is persuade voters who might miss the odd election to vote more regularly.
Still, with the electorate evenly divided and interest high in the election, both the Bush and Kerry campaigns see early voting as a chance to bank the votes of hard-core supporters and expand their bases of support by maximizing turnout among partisans less likely to vote.
"It's extremely important, because it gives you more time to get your supporters to the polls," Kerry campaign spokeswoman Allison Dobson said.
Many states allow the campaigns to track who has requested mail-in ballots or voted early in person. By cross-referencing that list against other available information, such as party registration, phone canvassing results or even personal preferences such as magazine subscriptions, the two campaigns can target the voters most likely to support them. Then, one Bush-Cheney official said, "we will chase that vote all the way through the process."
"Early voting expands the strike zone a little bit," Bush campaign spokesman Terry Holt said.
The Kerry effort will be aided by America Coming Together, an independent group working to get out the Democratic vote. The group plans to stage marches before Election Day to polling stations that open early in key states to put "peer and community pressure" on low-propensity voters, said Patrick Gaspard, the group's national field director.
The effort is selling well among minority voters who felt disenfranchised by the 2000 election and are worried that a vote at the polls will not count, Gaspard said. "People understand that banking their vote early will help protect it."