Whether encouraged by state officials to vote early and reduce the chaos and lines on Election Day, or pushed by campaigns to convert enthusiasm into tangible results, the shift to early balloting has made Election Day more of a final deadline than a one-day event.
In 2004, one out of every five Americans voted early, and if reports so far this year are any indication, an even larger proportion will wake up on Nov. 4 with their ballots already cast. More than 30 states — including most of the key swing states that will decide the race between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain — allow their citizens to vote early, whether by mail or in person.
In Georgia, almost 800,000 votes have been cast so far — already more than the tally in 2004 with over a week to go. By Thursday morning in North Carolina, more than 750,000 people had voted since the polls opened a week ago.
Nevada, where more than half of all voters cast early ballots four years ago, kicked off voting last weekend and ramped up access to early polling sites in places such as supermarkets and libraries.
"We've expanded early voting this cycle and increased the number of locations and number of hours in anticipation of record turnout, trying to drive as many people as possible to the early voting locations," said Secretary of State Ross Miller, who prefers early voting and expects only 40 percent of the votes in his state to be cast on Election Day.
If previous elections are any indication, analysts said, the swell of early voting will only increase ahead of Nov. 4.
"If these numbers stay as they are right now, and we match patterns we've had in the past, we've yet to see the wave crest in early voting," said Michael McDonald, a professor at George Mason University and a consultant to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission who compiles data on early voting.
So far, it appears that the Obama campaign's drive to get people to the polls in October is paying off, at least according to data from several swing states that track voter demographics: More than 55 percent of early voters in Georgia were female, for instance, and more than 35 percent were African-American; in North Carolina, fewer than a third of those who voted early identified themselves as Republicans; and more than 60 percent of first-day early voters in Clark County, Nev., were Democrats.
"These numbers are really astounding — they defy all the patterns of early voting we've seen in this modern era," McDonald said. Based on past elections, he explained, "the early electorate tends to be more Republican in their character than the Election Day electorate."
If the trends are borne out to favor Obama, that would be a big change from 2004, when Republicans won the early vote in every state but Iowa, the one place where Democrats focused on locking it down. Even so, Bush made up the difference on Election Day and carried the state by just 10,000 votes.
McDonald said that what appears to be a heavy Democratic tilt in early voting this year doesn't necessarily mean a rout is on the way, but he said it could indicate a groundswell of enthusiasm that might carry over to Election Day. "These people are excited, they already know who they're going to vote for," he said.
The Obama campaign’s special emphasis on maximizing the early vote was illustrated this week in the critical battleground state of Florida, where more than one-third of the voters cast their ballots ahead of Election Day in 2004. Obama spent the beginning of the week stumping and hosting “Early Vote for Change” rallies as state officials opened the first early polling stations on Monday. In Miami-Dade County, lines formed outside voting locations even before they opened at 7 a.m. Almost 500,000 people voted in Florida by Thursdaymorning, according to data compiled by McDonald.
In Fairfax County, Va., a D.C. suburb where Obama hopes to run up the score to help him carry the state, more than 40,000 ballots have been cast by Wednesday night with more than a week to go, compared with 45,000 early ballots in the entire 2004 general election, McDonald said.
The rolling tide of ballots has dramatically changed campaign strategy, political analysts said. Field operations must run on high gear with weeks to go, and candidates must shell out more resources to win every news cycle as voters make up their minds and cast their ballots.
"Some state and local candidates complain that it makes it more difficult to put the political strategy in place because it makes the voting period longer," said Nevada’s Miller. "You have to do your media buy much earlier in anticipation."
Early voting also can blunt the impact of any dramatic last-minute event that could swing the election. In Colorado, for example, almost half of the state’s 2 million votes were cast early in 2004, while this year the number could break 60 percent, McDonald estimated; by 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, more than 450,000 mail-in and early ballots had been received, he said.
"If the McCain campaign has some sort of October surprise to release, now's the time," McDonald said Monday. "The number of early voters in Colorado is so great."
Perhaps the clearest sign of early voting's new prominence is the amount of litigation and legal posturing it has attracted.
In Indiana, Republicans challenged the opening of three satellite voting centers in Democrat-rich Lake County — a linchpin in Obama’s strategy to carry the state — citing fears of voting fraud. On Wednesday, the Indiana judge ruled to keep the centers open.
In Ohio, local Republicans — with the explicit approval of the McCain campaign — sued to allow observers at early voting locations after Democratic Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner said they weren't mandated.
And late last week, also in Ohio, a judge in Hamilton County appointed a special prosecutor to investigate charges of voter fraud after Democrats accused county prosecutor Joe Deters of a conflict of interest and voter intimidation, forcing him to recuse himself from a grand jury investigation. Deters had launched the grand jury probe and subpoenaed the registration records of about one-third of the Cincinnati-area voters who took advantage of a one-week window in early October that allowed them to vote and register at the same time.