The calendar says Election Day is Nov. 4, but that's not exactly the case with states holding "early voting." That's where people can cast their ballots either by mail or in person. More and more states are employing this procedure, often to offset huge lines at the polls.
Thirty-six states have some sort of early-voting option, and each has a different approach. Kentucky and Maine already have ballots out, and battleground states like Virginia, Missouri and Iowa are starting the process now as well.
Some let voters mail in excuse-free absentee ballots. Others open up special polling places for walk-in votes. Iowa lets you walk your absentee ballot into a special polling place.
On a recent day, Jane Cornell was one of the first voters through the downtown Des Moines elections office.
"I remember voting for JFK," she said. "There were such long lines that some people didn't even vote, and I think this is very wise to do for those people who work."
Cornell says last winter's crowded caucuses were a reminder that she wanted to avoid election lines again. Despite the swirling financial news and upcoming debates, she insisted that she is not worried about regretting her choice later.
Carl Wertzberger, meanwhile, sailed by the same office on the way to work and was content to wait until November to vote.
"I want to wait till voting day, so that I can take part in all the festivities as opposed to early voting. So yeah, I do want to wait to make it more memorable," he said.
Wertzberger is leaning toward Republican John McCain but says he needs the next few weeks to make up his mind.
Campaigns Targeting Early Voters
Chelsea Kammerer, an Obama campaign state director, says it can be challenging keeping up with what is effectively election "game day" energy for 40 days straight.
"There are logistical things. There are different precincts voting on different days. You have to remind people with phone calls," she said. "You have to match up the door hangers to make sure people know they have this opportunity to vote. You have to tell them the hours. From an organizational standpoint, it's a lot of work, but we think the payoff is well worth it."
The Obama campaign has emphasized the registration of new voters, who don't fit the mostly white, mostly older, mostly wealthier profile of the average early voter. That's why Kammerer is sitting in a room with 250,000 buttons, stickers and door hangers stacked in boxes in every corner that say "Early Vote For Change."
The campaign has worked with local supporters to petition for the opening of some 75 new satellite voting stations throughout the state.
Republicans in Iowa aren't as aggressive as the Democrats.
In the days before early voting started, the GOP campaign phone bank in the suburbs of Des Moines was doing business as usual. This is not to say that Republican early-vote mass mailings are not on the way. But it's just not the centerpiece of their get-out-the-vote strategy.
"We've been spending most of our time focusing on an Election Day turnout effort that has been successful in Iowa, particularly in '04," says Gentry Collins, the Midwest chairman for the McCain-Palin campaign.
He said Republicans already have very high turnout rates on Election Day.
"What I am going to look to do is work on low-propensity voters — people who, in past years, haven't gone out to vote, and I am going to get them out to vote for the first time with our early-voting program," he said.
As a result this year, registered Democrats have filed three times as many absentee ballot requests as the GOP voters.
But with fewer than 150,000 requests overall, state election officials say, so far, the numbers of those looking to vote early appears to be down. And that could mean that long lines on Election Day — at least in Iowa — may be unavoidable.