By Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
In Columbus, college students pitched tents overnight so they could be first to vote. Advocates in Cleveland shuttled voters from homeless shelters to the polls. In Akron, voters arrived as soon as the doors were unlocked and waited in folding chairs for their turn.
Yesterday opened Ohio's unusual week-long window in which voters can register and cast absentee ballots at the same time. Hundreds arrived in steady streams, part of a first wave of people already voting across the country, five weeks before Election Day.
Given Ohio's pivotal role in presidential races, its one-stop registration and voting drew attention -- and legal challenges.
But nationally, early voting, by mail or in person, is becoming more common and is likely to account for one-third of all votes cast in the November elections, up from 14 percent in 2000, predicts Paul Gronke, a researcher with the Early Voting Information Center in Portland, Ore.
That projection tracks with growth that three other election analysts have noted, with the rate of early voting rising from 20 percent in 2004 to 25 percent in 2006. Experts and state election officials have followed the growth in early voting for more than a decade.
The change has not been lost on the campaigns, whose strategists have adjusted their operations mightily to woo those who cast ballots early, viewing them as electoral gold -- captured votes.
"Every vote we get in early is one less to run down on Election Day," said Alex Conant, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.
With that same view, the Obama campaign debuted an ad in Ohio on Friday explicitly aimed at early voters. "It was engineered just for that purpose, and it is the sort of thing you see campaigns doing more of," said Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which monitors ad spending.
The early-voting trend does not benefit one party over the other, experts say, because each is targeting infrequent voters. On the Democratic side, that means urban, often minority voters and students. On the Republican side, it is older voters and those in more rural areas who favor absentee ballots.
For both campaigns, the numbers are critical. In the highly competitive states of Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado, nearly half of voters are expected to cast ballots early this year, Gronke said.
In Ohio, early voting has shaped the candidates' operations.
Richard Kidd, a Dayton barber who volunteers with the Barack Obama campaign's community outreach effort, promised to drive customers at his shop to an early-voting site if they wanted to lock in their choices ahead of Election Day. Even before the voting began yesterday, Kidd had more than 100 voters committed.
"I wanted to make sure people who wanted to vote didn't feel stressed out that day," Kidd said.
Downstate in heavily Republican Lebanon, Lori Viars has been part of a "chase" program that mails John McCain literature to likely supporters who asked the county for an absentee ballot. The McCain team has mailed out 1 million absentee applications, and now Viars coordinates with the banks of callers who are following up, hoping to secure early votes.
Yesterday, she said, her e-mail was full of reminders about early voting and appeals for volunteers to sign up and start working now.
The effort to turn out early voters, she said, "is bigger than I've ever seen it."
This is the first presidential election in which Ohio voters do not have to provide an excuse to get an absentee ballot. But in the West, early voting took root in the 1980s, when election officials wanted to attract new voters and retain those who had become discouraged by long waits and time-consuming ballots bloated with referendum issues.
With each election cycle, the practice has moved eastward as states have adjusted voting rules to accommodate voters seeking convenience.
Thirty-one states -- not including Maryland, Virginia or the District -- allow no-excuse early voting. Others allow absentee voting, by mail or in person, only with an excuse. In Oregon, all voting is done by mail.
Benjamin Ginsberg, a longtime Republican strategist, said that over the past few presidential races, "there has been a dawning awareness" of the opportunity early voting presents to campaigns.
Obama and McCain campaign officials wouldn't detail their strategies. But experts say that generally, early voting requires campaigns to recalibrate the pace of their spending, arranging big ad buys, literature drops and volunteer canvassing weeks before Election Day.
"As soon as the window opens, you have to move. You want to be reaching out with the full weight of your message," said Geoff Garin, a strategist for Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential run. "The idea of a closing argument is quaint, if not antiquated."
During Democrat John F. Kerry's 2004 campaign, close to half of the expenditures for field operations in Iowa went toward locking down absentee voters, said John Norris, who was Kerry's state director there. "Significant amounts are spent up front," he said.
Drawing out a campaign, however, can strain an operation.
"The greatest price you pay is wear and tear on your volunteer base," said Patricia McCaig, a Democratic strategist who has worked for a decade in Oregon. "You aren't working to get out the vote just for those last 72 hours. You are doing it for weeks, and it's hard to sustain energy and enthusiasm."
Experts say they cannot point to a national contest in which early votes determined the outcome, but they say it has figured heavily into a few races.
Four years ago in New Mexico, Kerry booked a sizable pool of absentee voters, catching Republicans off guard and driving them to the last-minute get-out-the-vote effort that allowed them to carry the state.
The risks of early voting, according to some election analysts, include increased potential for fraud and voter error: Outside official polling places, it is easier for voters to obtain multiple ballots or to be improperly influenced in casting their votes, and there is no mechanism to alert them to mistakes on their ballots. It also carries the possibility of buyer's remorse if there are late surprises in the campaign, because in most states, there is no opportunity to take back a ballot once it has been cast.
But early voting has been encouraged by election officials, who see it as a way to reduce long lines and confusion on Election Day.
Officials in Franklin County, Ohio, which includes Columbus, launched a radio and TV campaign to encourage absentee voting after they saw hours-long waits in the March primary, and they have reported a record 117,000 requests for absentee ballots.
Based on the Columbus turnout yesterday, county officials expect between 10,000 and 12,000 early voters.
Court fights, which have turned into a bitter and continuing battle in Ohio, underscore just how important early voting has become, with Republicans challenging decisions by Democratic Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner.
An effort to block the one-stop registration and voting window was rejected by the state Supreme Court on Monday.
In a pending case, Republicans argue that they will lose votes because Brunner has advised local elections boards not to honor absentee ballot requests if voters failed to check a box on the form affirming that they are qualified to vote.
The chance to cast a ballot early appealed to a range of Ohio voters.
When Oberlin College offered to bus students to register and vote, 600 of its 2,800 students were on board.
Obama supporter Joe Staley, a seasoned voter and high school government teacher in Dayton, said he sees early voting as a way to start building enthusiasm for his candidate.
"I wanted to get out there," he said, "and get the momentum going."