It's nearly Election Day, and campaigns are strategizing about last-minute tactics. In some races candidates are preparing for their final debate. And election officials are working overtime to make sure voting machines and ballots are ready by Nov. 7 – especially after all the problems with new equipment that emerged during some states' primaries.
But here's the catch: Millions of Americans already have voted, either by going to early- voting sites or by sending in absentee ballots. What began as a trickle in the 1980s and '90s has turned into a flood, as more and more states adopt pre-Election Day voting mechanisms. In 1980, 1 in 20 voters cast a vote early. By 2004, nearly one-quarter of the total vote took place early. In 2006, a nonpresidential election year, overall turnout will be lower than in 2004. But given the expansion of early voting practices in many states, including a big rise in "no excuses" absentee ballots, experts predict the percentage of early votes will rise.
"It's regional, it's specific states, but there are some indications that we are, even in this midterm, going up," says John Fortier, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and author of a new book on absentee and early voting. "And certainly in '08, we'll probably be 30 percent or so."
Voters love the convenience of early balloting. They can avoid lines, bad weather, and last-minute hitches that might prevent turning out on Election Day. With absentee ballots they can consider their choices in the comfort of their homes and avoid questions about the accuracy of electronic voting machines.
But even if early voting is here to stay, election experts raise concerns about the trend. Voters are making their selections on incomplete information, they say, and even potentially voting for someone who will not be a candidate on Election Day (as happened in the 2002 Minnesota Senate race, when Sen. Paul Wellstone died less than two weeks before Election Day). Absentee ballots filled out away from a polling place – while an important option for shut-ins, students, and out-of-town travelers – leave voters open to coercion or even fraud, and subject to the vagaries of the postal service.
And to those who appreciate the community aspect of gathering with one's fellow citizens at the neighborhood polling place on Election Day, the advent in many states of an "election period" as opposed to a single day of voting represents a sad trend. The Northeast is an exception, as most states have no early voting at polling places. Some voters appreciate the communitarian aspect of Election Day as a teachable moment for children.
"I have kids, and I like to go to the polling place with them, and say, 'Isn't this fun, this is democracy and this is coming together for the common good,'" says Rob Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy in Takoma Park, Md. "In the ideal world, we would see more of that, but that's not the way trends are. Partly when we run such shoddy elections – run on the cheap – people then have more faith in the US mail than in their local polling place."
Rules for voting vary from state to state and even vary among localities. For a breakdown of early and absentee voting options in each state, go to www.electionline.org. In 1998, Oregon voters passed an initiative requiring that all votes be cast by mail, though voters have the option of dropping off their ballots at official sites. Washington is now about 90 percent vote by mail, and election analysts expect the state to go 100 percent mail-voting.
When states began offering early voting one of the hoped-for effects was more turnout. That has not materialized except in local elections held not on the usual November election day. "You see some jumps in turnout in, say, local races in May," says Mr. Richie. "Turnout might go from 5 to 19 percent."
Candidates and political parties love early voting because it gives them a way to lock in their votes early. But those who vote early are typically those who have a fixed partisan view and are not weighing their options until the final days. Still, in states that are showing strong growth in early voting, such as California, analysts find it hard to believe that all those voters are strong partisans not prone to changing their minds at the last minute based on new information.
In the end, there's no denying the popularity of early voting among voters themselves.
Eric Veltri of Davie, Fla., says the early voting process is a snap. "I was in and out in five minutes," he said Thursday morning. "There was no line."
Paulette Brown just moved to Broward County from Maryland, which has no early voting, just absentee ballots. "There was no line," she said, amazed at having emerged from the polls in minutes rather than hours. "In Maryland, Election Day was only one day. Rain or cold, you would be standing out in the cold in a long line. Some people are discouraged not to vote by that. So now (with early voting) there is no reason not to vote."
• Staffer Warren Richey contributed to this report