With early voting, Election Day is around the corner, even if Nov. 6 isn't

With 32 states plus the District of Columbia allowing in-person early voting, the Obama and Romney campaigns are deep into their early-voting strategies.

Tony Dejak/AP/File
A woman votes at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections in Cleveland on Jan. 31 as early voting began in Ohio's March presidential primary.

Feeling as if Election Day is just around the corner? That’s because in some states, it is.

In-person early voting starts later this month in several states, including the tossup state of Iowa, where the polls open Sept. 27.

In October, more states join in, including Ohio – one of the most important battlegrounds of all. Voting there starts Oct. 2, before even the first presidential debate on Oct. 3. Polls in two more swing states, Nevada and Colorado, open Oct. 20 and 22, respectively. In Florida, the decisive state in 2000, voting starts Oct. 27.

Overall, 32 states plus the District of Columbia allow in-person early voting. All states allow absentee voting, and 27 plus the District of Columbia don’t require an excuse. Two states, Oregon and Washington, conduct elections by mail.

Bottom line: More than ever, the idea that campaigns are aiming for the first Tuesday in November – this year, Nov. 6 – is a thing of the past.

So it comes as no surprise that the presidential campaigns are already deep into their early-voting strategies. President Obama makes a particularly strong pitch for early voting on college campuses, where he enjoys wide support but not of the same intensity as four years ago. First he tells students to go to GottaRegister.com – with apologies to their English teachers – then to another site that will help them cast a ballot.

“If you need to know how to vote, including early vote here in Iowa, go to GottaVote.com,” Mr. Obama told students last Friday at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. “I’m asking you not only to register and vote. I need you to go after your friends, talk to your parents, talk to your cousins, aunts, uncles, cousins, whoever you got.”

The Romney campaign and Republicans, too, are working on early-vote outreach, but with different emphasis. Senior citizens, who break for Romney in polls, often vote absentee, as do members of the military, another Republican-leaning constituency.

The Obama campaign is “whistling past the graveyard if they think we do not know how to do turnout,” Romney’s political director, Rich Beeson, told The Washington Post. He pointed to the 2004 race, in which Republicans “had the largest volunteer ground game ever assembled.”

But 2008 was a different a story. The “hope and change” tidal wave allowed the Obama campaign to mobilize a vast army of volunteers, especially of young people, to help turn out the pre-Election Day vote. Neither campaign disputes that Obama beat Republican nominee John McCain on early voting four years ago, allowing him to bank in advance the votes that handed him such critical states as Florida, Colorado, North Carolina, and Iowa.

Now the playing field is more level, as Obama struggles with a weak economy. Still, the president continues to outpoll Romney with the under-30 crowd by nearly 2 to 1. The question is whether Obama can pull together the same number of volunteers needed to do the door-knocking and phone-calling that encourages early voting.

On voter registration, at least, the Obama campaign is ahead of where it was four years ago, according to campaign manager Jim Messina. The campaign has registered 147 percent more voters than it had at this point four years ago, he told the Associated Press. He says that the Romney campaign is doing better than the McCain team did on its ground game but is “nowhere near where we are on the ground.”

First lady Michelle Obama has also gotten into the act. In July, she launched a voter registration program called “It Takes One,” in which she tells supporters that the one voter they register or take to the polls could be the one that makes the difference.

Adding fuel to Team Obama’s drive to bank votes early are the legal battles in several states – including two key battleground states, Florida and Ohio – over curtailed early voting. Advocates for minority rights have argued that the changes would especially hinder African-American turnout, which goes heavily for Obama. In 2008, more than half of black voters in Florida went to the polls early, double the rate of white voters.

Florida appears poised to reach an agreement with the Justice Department, though not everyone will be satisfied. The legal dispute relates only to five Florida counties that had never offered early voting on Sunday. Under the proposed agreement, polls will be open on the Sunday nine days before the election, but not the Sunday right before the election.

Democrats complained that denying voting on the Sunday before the election would undercut a program called Take Your Souls to the Polls, in which black congregations take members to vote right after church.

In Ohio, a federal judge ruled Aug. 31 that the final three days of early voting must be restored; the state’s Republican-controlled legislature had voted last year to eliminate them. The Obama campaign, which brought the lawsuit, argued that 93,000 Ohioans had voted on those last three days of early voting in 2008. The decision is under appeal.  

The legal battle in Ohio has only emboldened the state’s Democrats in their early-voting efforts.

“Despite the attacks on early voting that we’ve seen, there’s still no greater way to guarantee that we’re going get a vote in the door than by making sure they vote early,” says Jerid Kurtz, communications director of the Ohio Democratic Party.

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