Nov. 4 Isn't the Only Election Day

Campaigns Adjust as Early Voting Rises

Voters began casting absentee ballots Tuesday to take advantage of a disputed early voting law in the crucial swing state of Ohio. Video by AP
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.

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