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Voting Early in Battleground States

With a record nationwide organization effort underway, Barack Obama’s campaign is paying particular attention to early voting. According to one count, 31 states offer no-excuse early in-person voting, whether or not the state prefers the terminology “absentee voting.” In addition, Oregon is an all mail-voting state, and four more states require an excuse to vote absentee early, but not all “excuse” requirements are created equal.

To a campaign and its field organizers, early voting is a boon to aggressive efforts. Every voter a campaign has identified as a certain or likely supporter who goes and votes early is one fewer voter it has to target on election day.

Campaigns can see the names of voters who have already voted, and strike them from the phone calling and door knocking lists. As the number of outstanding eligible voters winnows, a campaign can more precisely target supporters who have yet to vote.

But more than that, campaigns can see what early voting numbers look like in particular sensitive counties to see if they’re falling behind or staying ahead of expectations. It allows resources to be shifted around days in advance of the final day of voting, something that is nearly impossible in practice for election day-only voting. On election day, a campaign can determine if voter turnout is light in certain precincts they’ve chosen as models for other key precincts in a given state, and then start pouring phone calls and sending rush-hour doorknockers into those areas, but early voting allows for an elongated, non-frenzied version of shuffling resources to meet prescribed vote goals by area.

In particular, we looked at those we’ve forecasted as battleground and penumbra states to see what the specific voting window dates were. After calling all the state board of elections offices, this is what the state election bureaus have confirmed:

Early Voting, Battleground/Penumbra States
AK: Oct 20-Nov 3
CO: Oct 20-Nov 3
FL: Oct 20-Nov 2
GA: Oct 27-Oct 31
IN: Oct 6-Nov 3
IA: Sept 26-Nov 3
MN: Oct 3-Nov 3
MT: Oct 6-Nov 3
NV: Oct 18, Oct 20-25, Oct 27-31
NM: Oct 18-Nov 1
NC: Oct 16-Nov 1
ND: Oct 20-Nov 3
OH: Sept 30-Oct 6 [UPDATE: Sept 30-Nov 3, with voter registration deadline Oct 6]
OR: Vote-by-mail begins Oct 20
WI: Oct 5-Nov 3

A couple things that need to be said here. Counties generally have a fair degree of autonomy about hours of operation and number of locations. Going in person to the county clerk’s office generally will accomplish the task. However, depending on the resources and individual decisions counties make, they may offer more locations. This matters, particularly in physically large counties where the drive (especially with $4 gasoline) might be 20, 30, 40 miles or more. When you hear of an early voting office open, for example, near a university or library, that is a county decision to offer more accessibility. Not only does early voting help campaigns, it also helps counties spread out the volume so that election day may not be as flooded as it might otherwise be.

Also, the difference between “early voting” and “absentee voting” – at least to the ears of some state election board administrators – appears to turn on whether votes are counted before or on election day. Absentee votes are opened and counted on election day, whereas an “early vote” may be tallied in advance. Not released for an early scoreboard, but the work can be done early. At least, that is terminology around which many state election board folks showed sensitivity. Wisconsin, which allows early in-person absentee voting, reported, “We do not have early voting in Wisconsin.” Even after some poking and prodding and surprise that other information indicated they did, the elections board initially refused to verify. But they do have it – it’s just called “absentee voting.” Functionally for the voter there’s no difference, and that’s really all the campaign cares about, except in the case where a voter calls up and uses the wrong terminology and is misinformed.

Another thing is the weekends/holidays issue. In the list, we’ve exempted October 19 and 26 (Sundays) for Nevada because its statewide statute specifically excludes Sunday voting. In practice, many of the other states may not have Saturday or Sunday voting, but that is a county-by-county decision. Or, if a particular county recognizes Columbus Day (Oct. 13), it may opt not to conduct early voting or early in-person absentee voting.

There are several more quirks that need a brief mention. Minnesota is in our list whereas Virginia is not, despite the fact that both offer early absentee voting for a valid excuse. Minnesota’s excuse statute says if the voter “reasonably expects” to be unable to vote in person on election day then that voter may cast an early/absentee vote. The bottom line is it’s loose, as confirmed by the state board of elections. In actual practice, nobody is getting turned away in Minnesota who shows up to vote early/absentee.

On the other hand, Virginia gave off the feel of a bureaucratic mess. You can request an absentee ballot 45 days early, but the specificity of the steps and procedures involved sounded arduous. Excuses must meet certain conditions, none of which sounded much like “reasonably expects.” Of all the states we called in our canvass of early voting dates, Virginia was the toughest to pry out information. That isn’t just a trivial result. The whole point is how big a hassle this is for voters. Having to write off and request a form to fill out and return in order to be eligible to apply for an excuse to vote early… well, that is realistically so many hurdles and issues that it’s a totally different than the on-paper same-category Minnesota. So unless and until new information about Virginia comes in that reveals it will be easy to drive large numbers of people to vote early there with low resistance, it stays off while Minnesota stays on.

There are other technical issues that do not truly impact the large-scale early voter push effort, such as a few states (Montana being an example) where early absentee/early voting stops by noon the day before the election. Or Florida, which does not have early voting on Monday, according to the state elections bureau. North Carolina and New Mexico stop a few days before the election, as do Nevada and Georgia. And of course Oregon’s unique vote-by-mail system is, in terms of campaign organizing, basically the same as early voting.

One last wrinkle worth noting, Colorado and Montana (as do non-battlegrounds California and Washington state) offer a permanent absentee ballot feature. Once you check a box stating that you’d like to be an absentee voter, from that point on your ballot is automatically mailed to you for every election going forward.

Ohio is going to be the canary in the coal mine this year. Its window for early voting is an odd duck. It starts September 30 and ends October 6, almost a full month before election day. What makes that significant is that we’ll be able to see what percentage of the projected overall Ohio electorate actually takes advantage of the window, and therefore get a pretty good foreshadowing of what’s to come in other states if the patterns hold.

From the perspective of John McCain’s campaign, if they plan to make a push anywhere in terms of organizing and early banked voting, it should be Ohio. We’ll get an early indication of whether the McCain camp is making any strong progress in ramping up its organizing operation in the aftermath of the Ohio window.

Overall, early voting helps election boards smooth out their work. It helps highly organized campaigns do enough prep work that their election day efforts are that much more streamlined. It’s no joke to say that Jon Tester is a United States Senator today because of a massive effort over the summer and fall of 2006 to get supporters to request absentee ballots mailed to them. In a state where roughly 400,000 people voted, the Tester campaign gained a roughly 10,000 vote head start (and also provided supporter IDs who could then be recruited to volunteer). Tester won by fewer than 4,000 votes.

In the battleground states this presidential year, it’s these small but distinct percentages that add up to victory. You won’t find it in the polling.