Early voting rises, forcing changes in campaigning

The Nation Votes 2006


WASHINGTON --For millions of Americans, Election Day is already over.

Thirty states now allow no-excuse absentee voting, and most of them also allow voters to cast early ballots in person at county clerks' offices or satellite polling places.

In Montana, absentee ballots were mailed Sept. 22. As many as 40 percent of Florida's voters will cast their ballots before Election Day, Nov. 7. Oregon's elections are conducted entirely by mail, and Washington is moving that way. California sent out 3.8 million absentee ballots the week of Oct. 8.

Candidates are maneuvering to adapt to a changed political calendar, accelerating their advertising, their mailings and their get-out-the-vote calls. They are figuring out who votes early and are trying to get to them before they cast their ballots. They are raising more money and spending it faster.


"Love it or hate it, it's the wave of the future," said Art Torres, chairman of the California Democratic Party. "Election Day started here on Oct. 10 and lasts 29 days. It's tremendously burdensome on our fundraising and the people we have out in the field."

Phil Angelides, the Democrat trying to unseat Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, spent $250,000 to mail 725,000 brochures last week, timed to drop into mailboxes the same day the absentee ballots arrived.

Mike McGavick, the Republican candidate for the Senate seat from Washington, pushed up his television advertising schedule to run spots that an aide called his "closing argument" three weeks before Election Day. More than half of the state's voters will cast ballots by mail before Nov. 7.

In the Denver suburbs, Rick O'Donnell, a Republican candidate for Congress, said he had been emphasizing his hard line on illegal immigration in recent speeches and advertisements to motivate loyal Republicans who he believed were more likely to vote early. O'Donnell is now pivoting to a message on taxes to try to appeal to independents and undecided voters who are waiting until Election Day.

Voting in the kitchen

"It is a different message when it is a different group of people," O'Donnell said.

"Every day we get a list of additional people who just in the last 24 hours have applied for ballots," he said. "The amazing thing is they are voting tonight at home on the kitchen counter. They come up to me and say, `I voted for you.'"

Experts estimate that more than 20 percent of voters nationwide will cast their ballots before Election Day by mail or at early-voting locations, a proportion of the electorate that is rising with each election. Some states and counties open the ballots before Election Day and keep the results secret; others count them with regular ballots.

Analysts and party officials who study early-voting trends say that a decade ago those who took advantage of absentee ballots tended to be relatively well off and highly educated, with Republicans outnumbering Democrats by almost 2 to 1.

But as the ease of early voting has spread, the ratio is slipping, and some analysts say that nearly as many Democrats as Republicans now vote early.

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