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Early Voters Breaking Records

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By Jon Cohen and Kyle Dropp
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 30, 2008

For at least 16 million voters, the 2008 election is already over.

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Across the more than 30 states that allow no-excuse absentee or early voting, votes have been pouring in at a record pace, and the data show Barack Obama as the clear beneficiary.

In the Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll, 59 percent of those who said they had already voted backed Obama, and 40 percent indicated that they supported John McCain. So far, the numbers are a near-mirror image of the past two elections.

Four years ago, President Bush scored 60 percent of early voters, according to data from the National Annenberg Election Survey. In 2000, that survey put then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush's take at 62 percent.

Mike DuHaime, political director for the McCain campaign, suggested that as the early-voting numbers continue to come in, they will begin to reflect the traditional GOP advantage among those casting absentee ballots, and he thinks that increased early voting may simply detract from Election Day turnout among Democrats. "Programatically, I feel pretty good about those numbers," he said.

The numbers themselves are staggering.

"The aggregate number was shocking," said Michael McDonald, an associate professor at George Mason University who compiles early-voting statistics, who added that his running total of early voters now tops 16.5 million. "Looking at them, they're defying all the trends we've seen in early voting."

He and others estimate that as many as a third of all voters may cast a ballot before Nov. 4, about double the proportion who did so in 2000. Four years ago, approximately one in five voters voted before Election Day.

This year, both parties have put outsize emphasis on getting voters to commit early, and election administrators have encouraged the notion in the hope of easing their work at the polls on Tuesday.

In Georgia, nearly 1.4 million voters have now cast ballots, a figure close to half of the total number of votes in the state four years ago. Florida reported more than 2.5 million early voters, and yesterday, Republican Gov. Charlie Crist ordered early-voting hours extended in response to unprecedented interest. California and Texas have each recorded more than 2 million early votes.

Some states release information about how many ballots they have received from registered Democrats and Republicans, while others, to comply with Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, collect and report data broken down by voters' racial backgrounds.

Kate Kenski, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Arizona who analyzed the Annenberg studies, pointed out that the "preliminary election data show that this campaign may represent a change, with elevated levels of Democrats and African Americans voting early."

The Louisiana secretary of state's office, for example, reported that African Americans make up 36 percent of those who have already voted, more than double their proportion in early voting in 2004. Nationally, in the Post-ABC tracking poll, African Americans make up 12 percent of all those who have cast ballots, significantly higher than the proportions from 2004 (8 percent) and 2000 (2 percent), according to the Annenberg studies.

Paul Gronke, director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Portland, Ore., said that "typically early voters have been older, whiter, higher-income, better educated. This year, they've been younger, African American and more Democratic." "It's hard," he said, "to spin these numbers in any way that looks favorable to the GOP."

The Obama campaign is clearly buoyed by the numbers.

In a television interview, David Plouffe, campaign manager for Obama, said: "These early vote numbers, one, they're good for democracy. . . . In Nevada, North Carolina, New Mexico, Ohio, Florida, we love what we're seeing in terms of turnout. We think it's going to continue on through November 4th."

McDonald, an expert on turnout, cautioned Democrats that the GOP's vaunted "72-hour project" has yet to go into effect. "I do agree with Republicans that we haven't seen the Republicans do an intense GOTV effort, which they'll do this weekend," McDonald said. "I agree that Democrats have a head start, but Republican voters are generally easier to turn out."


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