By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 8:15 AM
A record number of voters have cast early ballots for a midterm election.
The total number of early votes has topped 16 million, according to one preliminary analysis, and is on track to be slightly shy of the historic number of early ballots cast in the 2008 presidential election.
"It's going to easily beat any midterm we've had," said Michael McDonald, a George Mason University government professor who has tracked early voting for several election cycles and estimates that 29 percent of midterm votes have been cast in the days and weeks before Election Day.
All 50 states have sent out absentee ballots, and in 29 states, in-person early voting is also underway. Most of them have made it easier for people to vote early, allowing "no excuse" mail-in ballots and automatically sending ballots to voters who voted by mail in the past.
That has paid dividends, with early voting growing more popular over the years. From 2004 to 2008, the percentage of votes cast before Election Day increased from 20 percent to 30 percent, according to the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey.
Though it is impossible to know for whom voters are casting their ballots, both parties have found something to like about the robust early turnout figures. The Democratic Party, which developed early voter mobilization organizations in 2008 that they have carried forward to 2010, has pushed early voting as a key part of its get-out-the-vote efforts. In most states, a majority of early voters have been Democrats. Republicans, who are expected to make big gains in Congress this election season, have seen their early vote totals improve compared with 2008 and say that bodes well for them.
McDonald described the preliminary early vote totals as a "mixed bag" that both Republicans and Democrats are trying to spin in their favor. "You have to take the messages from the parties with a grain of salt," he said. "You don't know if they are going out and picking low-hanging fruit, or are they mobilizing people who would not otherwise vote."
In Florida, more than 2.1 million early votes have been registered, with Republican voters casting 49.5 percent of those ballots, according to McDonald's analysis of figures from the Florida Division of Elections. Democrats cast only 36.3 percent of early votes there. Independents cast 14.2 percent of them.
In Nevada, where election analysts predict that nearly two-thirds of voters have already cast their ballots, both political parties spent resources encouraging early turnout at special in-person early voting locations.
Democrats have an edge in early vote totals in the state, where Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid is locked in a tight race with tea-party-backed Republican challenger Sharron Angle. Reid, who has bragged about his get-out-the-vote operation, told reporters: "We are comfortable where we are."
In North Carolina, more than 1 million people have voted in the state's early voting period. Forty-six percent of those voters were Democrats, 36 percent were Republicans and 17 percent were Independents.
"We've seen a very, very significant shrinking of the [early voting] gap between Republicans and Democrats," said Jordan Shaw, a spokesman for the North Carolina Republican Party. "We think the early voting numbers bode well for us."
In 2008, almost 2 million people in the state voted early, and 54 percent of early voters were Democrats. Andrew Whalen, executive director of the state's Democratic Party, said his organization poured resources into early voting, opening two dozen field offices across the state and calling on thousands of volunteers to push early voting.
Twenty percent of early voters in that state have been African Americans, up from 16 to 18 percent in past midterm elections.
"We have had a lot of luck turning out the voters that cast ballots for the first time in 2008," Whalen said.
One of the few states where early voting is down is Alaska, where a three-way Senate race between Republican Joe Miller, Democrat Scott McAdams and Republican incumbent-turned-write-in candidate Lisa Murkowski has left many voters undecided. In 2008, almost 100,000 people voted early. This year, that number is 32,000.
"People are holding their water, especially when it comes to the U.S. Senate race," said Sarah Mouracade, a spokeswoman for the state's Democratic Party.