MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It's a little over three weeks until Election Day, but people across the country are already voting. We'd like to know more about how this is working, so we called Michael McDonald associate professor of political science at the University of Florida. He runs the United States Election Project which tracks information about elections and early voting. And he's with us now from Gainesville, Fla. Professor McDonald, thanks so much for being with us.
MICHAEL MCDONALD: Wonderful to be with you.
MARTIN: Can you give us a way to measure how widespread early voting is and how this compares to past election years?
MCDONALD: Well, I start with that last question first. In 2008, roughly 30 percent of the votes were cast prior to the election. In 2012, it was 32 percent. A couple more states have come online. We have about 13 holdout states that don't offer any form of early voting yet, but just looking at the fact that a few more states have come online and popularity of early voting tends to increase, even if a state doesn't change its law, I would project about 34 percent of the votes will be cast prior to Election Day in 2016. That number may change a little bit on the estimate, but I think that's where we start from.
MARTIN: That's about a third. That's pretty big.
MCDONALD: Yes, and in some states, it will be much more than that, and some of the key battleground states like Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada - you could see 50 percent, even two-thirds or more of the votes cast prior to Election Day.
MARTIN: You say that the percentage of the electorate that seems to be voting early or seems to be edging up - you said you think it might be around - what? - 34 percent? Is that because early voting is more popular? Anything we can glean from that?
MCDONALD: What's very interesting about this election is that we're seeing uneven activity in voting across the country. So in the South, in places like Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, for example, we can see interest is up over 2012, in terms of early voting activity. But then you look at the Midwest, and it's exactly the opposite. It's the Democrats who have lowered interests, so we can see in Iowa, the early voting numbers among registered Democrats are much lower than they were in 2012. And in Ohio, we can see places like Cuyahoga where Cleveland is and Franklin where Columbus is. We can see much lower levels of early voting activity than in 2012, and if we take a big step back, and we sort of take a look at the big picture, we'll see increased voting across the board, not only early, but also on Election Day in the Southern states. But yet, in the Midwest, we may see early voting levels lower and then overall turnout levels lower as well.
MARTIN: Have there been any events so far that seem to have had an effect on requests for absentee ballots?
MCDONALD: We do have data out of North Carolina and Georgia where we know the absentee ballot requests by gender, and looking at the gender on - by date, I can see that following that first debate, the number of women that were requesting absentee ballots increased significantly and their share of the - all of the early ballots went up about 4 percentage points.
MARTIN: One of the major party candidates has raised questions about the integrity of the voting process overall and has suggested that, you know, the outcome is somehow sort of predetermined. Does the prevalence of early voting - does that influence people's confidence in the outcome at all in your opinion based on your research over time?
MCDONALD: So it would be extremely difficult for a party to manipulate the election outcomes for a presidential election because we run our elections at the local level, so there would have to be some sort of conspiracy that stretches across multiple counties in some of the key battleground states, and you'd have to have in many cases Republican-elected officials because in many places we have partisan-elected officials who run our elections in this country. You'd have to have Republicans who are complicit in this rigging of the election, but, of course, there are instances of fraud that happen.
But by and large, these are things that happen predominantly at the local level and when they do happen, they actually - they happen in the mail balloting. But, again, you have to recall that you have a lot of Republicans who are engaged in this, too. So they would have to be the - another group that's complicit in this rigging.
MARTIN: Michael McDonald is associate professor of political science at the University of Florida. He runs the United States Election Project. We reached him in Gainesville. Professor McDonald, thanks so much for speaking with us.
MCDONALD: You're welcome.
MARTIN: Just a reminder. The final presidential debate is Wednesday night at 9 p.m. Eastern time. There will be live coverage on many NPR stations, and we'll be fact-checking the presidential debate online at npr.org.