Two months prior to Election Day, the first votes of the 2016 election will be cast next week in the battleground state of North Carolina.
With early votes expected to make up 50 to 75 percent of ballots cast in North Carolina and other key swing states, the next two months could prove even more critical than Nov. 8th in deciding who will be the 45th president of the United States.
The influence of early voting has been growing, and the major American political parties know it.
“This is going to change the dynamics in [battleground] states, so that you will expect to see early rallies timed when the early voting opens up likely in Florida, Ohio, North Carolina,” Prof. Paul Gronke, founder and director of the Early Voting Information Center and a professor at Reed College, told NPR. “The candidates travel schedule will reflect this because they want to follow up this kind of enthusiasm and get people to the polls right away.”
Historically, early voting has favored the Democrats in some key states, and in 2008 35 percent of votes are cast before the election according to the Associated Press. That's up from 22 percent in 2004.
In 2008, for example, Barack Obama won 58 percent of the pre-election day votes to Sen. John McCain's 40 percent and managed to win Colorado, Florida, Iowa and North Carolina even though on election day more people in those states voted for Senator McCain – which speaks to the overall enthusiasm young and minority American Democrats felt for Obama.
The 2012 presidential election saw a less dramatic divide between the Republicans and Democrats when it came to early voting. Mitt Romney pulled in more early Republican voters than the party usually sees, but the process still favored the Democrats with Obama ultimately winning the election.
The debate surrounding early voting splits down party lines. Democrats argue that restricting voting in any way is an attempt to limit the turnout of minority and low-income voters who tend to vote Democrat. Republicans say the restrictions are necessary to prevent voter fraud. Mr. Trump is particularly worried about the election being rigged and has asked individuals to monitor polls to ensure Democrats do not attempt to vote multiple times.
For Trump, the early voting challenge will be with Hispanic, black, and first-time voters who are more likely than white people to vote early, but tend to vote Democrat. Trump is lagging in the polls with these demographics now. Combined with the fact that Trump’s campaign organization is significantly behind Hillary Clinton’s in putting paid and volunteer workers into key swing states, and spreading the “get out and vote” message, Trump may struggle in early polls.
“A campaign with a superior voting operation can make a difference, and right now Donald Trump has shown little sign of organization,” Ryan Williams, a former senior staffer to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, told the Associated Press, adding that Trump only just hired a national field director.
Mrs. Clinton has been pushing for early voting since last June as a part of her voting rights platform, which includes repairing the Voting Rights Act and automatically registering voters when they turn 18, unless the opt out. She has strongly opposed attempts to limit the right to vote, such as the recently overturned voter ID law in North Carolina.
Some 37 states and the District of Columbia allow voters to cast ballots by mail or at polling sites before Nov. 8.
Early votes can also help reduce the logistical effort needed to get out the vote on Election Day.
“We can’t say this will be locked up with early voting, but it can absolutely make a huge difference,” Marlon Marshall, Clinton’s director of state campaigns and political engagement, told the Washington Post. “Every early voter we get is one less person we need to mobilize on Election Day.”
Some worry something critical could happen between when early voters cast their ballots and the official Election Day – and that could make them reconsider their choice. However, people who vote early are typically decidedly in one camp or the other.
“Early ballots will come in not much earlier than a week or a week and a half before the election and when we have asked people about whether they have any regret or they would have changed their minds, very few said they would change their minds,” Professor Gronke told NPR. “You may not want them to cast their ballots early but many are ready to do so.”