Election Day Comes Early

November 2 is the official climax of the presidential campaign, but for thousands of Americans the 2004 election might be over weeks earlier when they cast early ballots in person or by mail.

The Washington Post reports that changes in election laws have widened the opportunities for voters to make their choices well before election day —: in some cases, even before important events like the presidential debates.

That expansion of early voting is changing the way campaigns target some voters, especially after the razor-thin margin seen in the 2000 race and predicted again this year.

According to The Post, 30 states allow voters to cast absentee ballots without providing any reason for voting early. Ten other states require voters to claim some justification for mailing in their vote.

Besides absentee balloting, several states are opening polling stations early. In some cases voting machines will be running weeks in advance of Election Day.

Supporters say the changes increase participation by allowing voters to avoid Election Day lines at polling stations. Detractors believe the trend toward early voting erodes the communal spirit of Election Day.

Critics also say that early voting prevents millions of voters from considering last-minute campaign developments. In the 1980 election, for example, Ronald Reagan did not pull ahead of President Carter until the last weekend of the campaign.

President Bush, The Post notes, divulged only five days before the 2000 election that he had an arrest for drunk driving. Exit polls showed the revelation hurt then-Gov. Bush, but in some states it was too late to make a difference: In Tennessee, for one, a third of the votes were already in. Mr. Bush won the state.

Pros and cons aside, the expanding role of early voting has presidential campaigns taking notice.

The Kerry campaign is working with a private group, Americans Coming Together, to target polling stations that open early in some states, according to The Post. The newspaper says campaigns will also lists of who has received absentee ballots, when available, to conduct targeted campaigns of early voters.

The Bush and Kerry campaign Web sites, meanwhile, allow people to register to receive absentee ballots and to find out when and if their state allows early voting.

The Kerry site, which allows users to navigate to state-specific Web pages, catalogues the myriad variations in election law. For example, Alabama, Florida and Georgia use no special criteria for absentee ballots, but New York State requires that voters be away on business, studies or vacation, in the hospital, disabled, in jail, or "accompanying a spouse, parent, or child" to get an absentee ballot.

Connecticut, Alaska and Illinois do not allow early voting at polling sites. Wyoming, however, lets you vote 40 days before the election. Vermont allows early voting from Oct. 4 on. American Samoa's vote begins Sept. 30.

Sept. 30 is also the date of the first presidential debate. Debates run through Oct. 13, meaning early voters can cast their ballots before the candidates have had a final chance to make their case.

Early voting in the United States isn't the only new wrinkle to the presidential race.

Democrats and Republicans everywhere from Hong Kong to Hungary are aggressively targeting American expatriates, whose absentee ballots could prove decisive in a tight race.

And earlier this year, the Pentagon canceled Internet voting that would have involved as many as 100,000 military and overseas citizens from seven states in November.