Election Day is more than six weeks away, but by Nov. 6 tens of millions of Americans — perhaps as many as 40 percent of all voters — will have cast their ballots in the presidential race and other contests.
The robust growth in early voting, either by mailed absentee ballot or in person, has made it a critical element in the ground-game strategies of both major presidential campaigns. The traditional get-out-the vote push, once focused on a the final hours of a contest, has become an elaborate 45-day operation.
This year’s early balloting is underway, and by mid-to-late October it could yield indicators of the outcome. In North Carolina, nearly 3,000 ballots already have been returned by mail. On Friday, voters in South Dakota and Idaho began casting ballots in person.
Over the next month, the District and 34 states (including Maryland) will allow voters to cast early ballots without providing a reason — “no-excuse” voting. Virginia law requires that voters meet at least one of more than a dozen criteria, including anticipated absence on Election Day, disability, pregnancy or a lengthy commute to work.
Early votes are expected to make up the majority of ballots cast in battlegrounds such as Florida, North Carolina, Nevada and Colorado, where as many as 80 percent of all voters may be early. Two states, Oregon and Washington, conduct elections exclusively by mail, sending ballots to all registered voters about three weeks before the election.
The volume of pre-Election Day activity is expected to surpass 2008, when about 33 percent of 131 million votes cast in the presidential contest were early. That is nearly double the 15 percent who voted early in 2000.
President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney have tilted travel schedules and messaging in battleground states toward early voters. The Obama campaign, which had considerable success turning out young and African American supporters through early voting in 2008, hopes to duplicate the feat this year.
In all-important Ohio on Monday, the president tried to fire up a young crowd by reminding them that they can vote as early as the beginning of October.
“You can start showing up and voting on October 2nd. That’s 15 days away,” he said, adding: “Young people, you got to use the early vote because you might not wake up in time on Election Day. I can’t have you missing class.”
As in 2008, Obama organizers have integrated early-vote turnout into their grass-roots efforts, data mining to identify voters with a history of turning out early and setting up “chase programs” to follow up by phone or in person with everyone who has received an absentee ballot.
By encouraging supporters to vote early, “we can focus our resources more efficiently on Election Day to make sure those less likely to vote get out to the polls,” Obama campaign spokesman Adam Fetcher wrote in an e-mail.
Romney political director Rich Beeson said Obama owes his success with early voting in 2008 to an edge in resources because of his decision to opt out of public financing for his campaign. That put his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who took public financing, at a disadvantage. This year, with both candidates opting out, the playing field is closer to even.
“They’ve actually taken a page from our playbook,” Beeson said. “We know how to do early and absentee. We know the strategy behind it.”
What is new for a Republican presidential campaign, Beeson said, is Romney’s digital operation, which has integrated Facebook and other online tools into the process of identifying and turning out early and absentee voters.
Early voting started to become popular three decades ago, when localities in California and other western states, looking for ways to stimulate turnout, started mailing ballots to all registered voters. The idea spread eastward as voters increasingly enjoyed the flexibility and convenience — and campaigns began to exploit it as an organizing tool.
“This is how we used to vote in America,” said Michael McDonald, a George Mason University professor who heads the United States Elections Project, which collects information about the country’s electoral system. Until 1845, states allowed up to a month for voting, to accommodate farmers and other rural residents who faced long trips to polling places. But improved communications and concerns about fraud led Congress to establish the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November as the sole day of voting.
The early balloting can be a leading indicator of the final count. Although states don’t release actual results, data on the volume of early ballots, party registration and demographic makeup of the voters can offer clues to the outcome.
In late October 2008, a Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll of early voters in more than 30 states showed that 59 percent backed Obama, while 40 percent said they supported McCain. In 2004, President George W. Bush captured 60 percent of early voters, according to the National Annenberg Election Survey.
For years, the profile of the early voter closely conformed to the characteristics of Republicans: older, white, more ideological and better informed about politics, said Paul Gronke, who heads the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Portland, Ore.
But Obama turned the conventional wisdom on its head in 2008, drawing out vast numbers of African Americans to vote early in person, especially in southeastern states such as Florida. Many were organized by churches to vote on the final Sunday before Election Day.
The 2008 results triggered a backlash in 2010, led by new Republican governors and GOP-controlled state legislatures. In states such as Florida, Iowa, Ohio and Pennsylvania — all in Obama’s column in 2008 — measures were passed that Democrats say could limit early voting. These include requirements for photo identification, shortened voting periods and new conditions for registration.
Those measures have triggered legal counterattacks from Democrats, charging that they are attempts to suppress the vote.
The Obama campaign took Ohio to court last month over a new state law that would cut off early voting at 6 p.m. on the Friday before Election Day for everyone except military personnel. A federal judge overturned the law on Aug. 31, but the state is appealing.
In Florida, a federal court ruled that a measure cutting early voting days from 14 to eight — eliminating voting on the Sunday before Election Day — disadvantaged minority voters. The state agreed to extend voting hours on the eight days, but Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) is suing to have the original 14-day calendar reinstated.