How Early Voting Is Changing Elections

Julio Galligaris sorts through mail-in ballots that have been received in Doral, Fla.

hide captionJulio Galligaris sorts through mail-in ballots that have been cast and received at the Miami-Dade Election Department headquarters in Doral, Fla., on Wednesday.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Election Day is Nov. 2, but in more than 30 states, midterm voting is already under way.

Across the country, voters are casting ballots at early polling locations. Even more common is the use of absentee ballots.

And early voting is changing not only the way voters choose their candidates, but also the way politicians conduct their campaigns.

From Election Day To Election Weeks

Florida is one of many states where the votes are rolling in weeks before Election Day.

At her office in Fort Lauderdale, Broward County Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes says her staff is busy with the first phase of the election: receiving and recording absentee ballots.

"We sent out over 75,000," she says — and they're already coming back in.

Florida has long had a liberal policy on absentee balloting — allowing any qualified voter to mail in his or her ballot. Six years ago, the state went the next step with early voting. Two weeks before the election, every county sets up polling stations, allowing people to cast their votes where and when it's convenient.

Midterm Predictions

See what NPR's Ken Rudin and other political watchers forecast for the races in Florida and elsewhere at the Election Scorecard.

A similar system is in place in California, Georgia, Ohio and more than two dozen other states. Snipes says the idea is to make it easy for people to vote.

"Election Day, as we know it, is not quite what it used to be. It's not just one opportunity to vote," she says. "We start voting 45 days out from an election."

In the presidential election two years ago, more than half of all of the votes in Florida were cast through either absentee ballots or early voting. It's a trend that's only expected to increase.

And it's having an effect on campaigns.

Targeting Voters Early

This year, in the closing days before Florida's August primary, polls showed the state's attorney general, Bill McCollum, leading former hospital CEO Rick Scott in the race for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

But when the votes were counted, Scott won. McCollum blamed the large number of Floridians who cast votes early, before he surged in the polls.

"I know Rick Scott was up in the polls considerably over me two or three weeks before the balloting," McCollum said. "And so, I would surmise, though I haven't seen the results broken down, that he probably had a pretty hefty margin in maybe the absentees and the early voting."

In Florida, the state Republican Party has long been good at using absentee ballots as part of its effective get-out-the vote effort. It's a strategy that was copied in 2008 by the Obama campaign. For weeks before the election, Obama volunteers targeted Democratic and independent voters, distributing absentee ballot request forms and encouraging people to go to early polling sites.

"We banked a lot of votes really early," says Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who directed the Obama campaign in Florida. "And it allowed us to go into Election Day with confidence we were going to win, almost regardless of what happened on that day."

With the growing importance of early voting, Schale says, campaigns now have to get their candidate's story out earlier.

In the old days — eight or 10 years ago — elections were like a book, with a beginning, a middle and a climax on Election Day, he says. "These days, people vote in second and third chapters. So you find yourself sort of having to frontload information. That makes campaigns more expensive.

"I think it's driving some of this earlier negativity," he adds. "You don’t want to take the risk that people are voting before they know all of the facts you want them to know about both you and your opponent."

'The Calls Just Stop'

Paul Gronke, director of the Early Voting Information Center at Oregon's Reed College, says for campaigns, early voting has become a vital tool for mobilizing voters and monitoring turnout. In Oregon, Florida and other states, elections officials make public the names and addresses of early voters — oftentimes just hours after they cast their votes.

Gronke says campaigns pore over the information and use it to direct resources where they're needed.

"You can tell when your ballot has arrived and it's been scanned and your voter registration number is put up in a database," he says, "because the calls just stop. I mean, they stop the next day."

The downside, critics say, is that early voting encourages people to go to the polls when their information about the candidates may not yet be complete.

And although it's more convenient, there's no evidence yet that early voting does anything to increase turnout.

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