As Laws Shift, Voters Cast Ballots Weeks Before the Polls Close
By JEFF ZELENY
Democrats, who have been quicker to take advantage of the technique in the last two election cycles, say that a voting window of 30 days could allow them to win votes from people who might not otherwise cast a ballot and help level an enthusiasm gap that threatens their Congressional majority. Republicans concede being slower to adjust to the changes, but said they have stepped up their efforts in what they hope will be a strong year for the party.
“You can lose an election before Election Day,” said Jason Mauk, executive director of the Ohio Republican Party, which is intensifying its emphasis on early voting for the first time. “It’s in our best interest to try and bank as many soft votes as we can.”
The calendar may still say September, but people can begin casting their ballots on Tuesday in Ohio. Voting is already under way in Georgia, Iowa and four other states, with Arizona, California and Illinois set to start in the next two weeks.
Never mind that October is filled to the brim with televised debates, advertising pitches and eager anticipation from candidates waiting to see if they win the endorsement of their local newspaper’s editorial page. These old political rituals take place after millions of voters have already selected their candidates.
A patchwork of early-voting laws has emerged in counties and states across the country over the last two decades, but much of the expansion has taken place in the last four years. This is the first midterm election where each party has altered its tactics to adjust to the new realities of voting, according to strategists in both parties, resulting in a campaign where everything from advertising to yard signs comes earlier.
“There is now much more consideration to making sure you have your opponent fully defined before ballots go out in October,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist in California, who is advising Meg Whitman’s campaign for governor. “It would not be unusual to consider dropping that big negative on an opponent in the first week of October to try to have a big impact.”
In California, residents are able to indicate a permanent vote-by-mail request, which means a ballot will automatically arrive in the mail four weeks before an election. The lists are available to campaigns, which Mr. Stutzman said has significantly increased the get-out-the-vote effort for absentee voters.
While people in New York must have an excuse to vote before Election Day, which is why only 5 percent cast absentee ballots in the presidential race two years ago, most states no longer have that restriction. Voting alternatives range from a pure mail-in ballot in Oregon to a three-week period of balloting in Florida, Texas and Nevada.
Early voting has hardly driven all eligible citizens to vote. Turnout has increased only slightly since 2005 when many states began making voting more convenient. But it has made it far easier for campaigns to find voters who would be likely to be supportive if they could get them to the polling place. And with 70 percent of Americans now able to take advantage of no-excuse early and absentee voting, the trend is permanent.
“It’s not going to represent a seismic shift in the number of people voting,” said Dan Tokaji, an Ohio State University law professor who studies early voting and election law. “The convenience of voting is a factor, but it’s not the major reason that people don’t show up to vote.”
Here in Ohio, an election period that now stretches over 35 days is one of the few things lifting the spirits of Democrats. Two years ago, the party overwhelmed Republicans in early voting. John McCain received more votes on Election Day, but Barack Obama carried the state, because many Democrats and independents voted early.
“We have more than 30 days to find our supporters, get them out to vote and win this election,” Gov. Ted Strickland of Ohio, a Democrat, told a crowd at a weekend rally, where he rolled up in a bus with an early-voting message emblazoned on the side. “Are we going to do it?”
A group of Republican voters filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court in Cincinnati challenging the practice of a few Ohio counties — Democratic-leaning ones — that provide postage-paid envelopes for absentee ballots. Voters in most counties across the state have to provide their own stamp, a disparity they argue created unequal access to vote.
One of the biggest elements of the Democratic Party’s effort to persuade first-time voters from the last presidential race to vote in the midterm election comes through early voting. Organizing for America, the party’s network of Obama supporters, is focusing much of its effort on important Congressional races in states that allow early voting.
In Florida, where ballots began arriving in mailboxes last week, a liberal group called Progress Florida sent an appeal Monday urging people to “Vote in your pajamas.”
The Democratic strategy is being amplified by President Obama, whose travel schedule over the next three weeks closely tracks the dates when early voting begins. Unlike the 2008 campaign, aides said that this year’s early-voting effort was largely devoted to hard-core Democrats, excluding independent voters who might not be supportive of the party’s message.
In Ohio, Mr. Obama is set to arrive next month for an early-voting rally on the campus of the Ohio State University, where he will encourage students to cast their early ballots for Democrats. Party officials here hope the effort is something of a second act for the 2008 campaign, when early voting helped give several candidates an edge.
This year, Republicans said they were not ceding the strategy, but party officials dismissed the suggestion that a midterm election would give Democrats the same advantage of a presidential election. “It defies the logic of low-propensity voting,” said Mr. Mauk, the state party’s executive director.
A crucial test will come here in Cincinnati, where Mr. Obama became the first Democratic president to carry Hamilton County in 44 years. The Board of Elections office on Broadway Avenue has expanded service until 9 p.m. on some days, and until noon on Saturdays.
“Now, is there any reason not to vote?” Maryellen O’Shaughnessy, the Democratic candidate for secretary of state asked a cheering crowd at a rally here as she offered detailed instructions how to cast early ballots. “Folks can’t say they don’t have enough time to get to the polls.”