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Early Voting: Getting the Jump on Election Day

Voters go to the polls early in Sebring, Fla.
Joe Raedle
Getty Images
Voters go to the polls early in Sebring, Fla.

Have you voted yet?

Yes, Tuesday is officially Election Day. And for years we have been conditioned to think of the first Tuesday in November as the day we visit our local polling places, standing in line and checking our watches.

But thanks to early and absentee voting, the 2006 midterm elections are already well under way. The nonpartisan Web site Helping Americansvote.org reports that 35 states have no restriction on either absentee or early voting and that 15 states allow absentee or early voting with state specific requirements.

Voters and politicians alike are racing to understand the new phenomenon that gives more than half the nation's voting age population the chance to vote before Nov. 7. "Election Day is no longer Election Day but rather election weeks and that's what we now have in the United States," says Paul Gronke, director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Oregon, the only state to vote exclusively by mail-in ballot.

"Both Republicans and Democrats have seen early and absentee voting coming for some time," says Gronke. In the case of California, Gronke says 30 percent of voters now vote absentee for convience and in some cases out of a desire to make sure their vote counts. "This requires parties to get their mobilization materials out early," says Gronke, who predicts an early end to phone calls if party officials know you have already turned in an absentee ballot.

Some election observers believe the trend towards early voting will lead to increased turnout. Others aren't so sure. In parts of Virginia, voters can obtain an absentee ballot if they're subject to traffic gridlock.

Anyone whose workday -- including commute -- typically covers more than 11 hours during the time that polls would be open is eligible to vote absentee in Northern Virginia's congested Fairfax County.

In Georgia, Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue has gone a step further and championed the cause of so-called "no excuse" absentee ballots and plans to vote that way himself this year. Not everyone is a fan.

"No-excuse absentee-ballot voters are middle-class, upper-middle-class and upper-class voters who are lazy. They want their convenience," says Curtis Gans, director of American University's Center for the Study of American electorate. "The cost is, some of these people may not actually vote. They won't be mobilized with the same force on election day."

Gans predicts the growth in early and absentee voting will change the dynamic of how elections are . "In certain ways you want to get your shots in before the early voting starts," he says.

Whether early and absentee voting has any partisan effect is open to question.

"The demography of the no-excuse absentee voter would be Republican, but on the other hand, in the 2000 election, the absentee ballots that came in after election night actually extended Al Gore’s margin over George Bush by about 200,000. So it’s not clear who benefits," says Gans.

NPR's Pam Fessler reports that requests for absent ballots were up across the country this year, but she says some experts warn that absentee voting can be the riskiest way to vote.

"We have contests and elections in this country that were thrown out because of the misuse and abuse of absentee ballots," John Willis, an election expert at the University of Baltimore and a former Secretary of State in Maryland, told Fessler.

"What election administrators find is that the American public is great at figuring out how to foul up their ballot," says Kimball Brace, President of Election Data Services, a political consulting firm. He points out that unlike voters who go to a polling place, absentee voters are left to their own devices.

The result, he says, is "many instances where people just haven't marked the ballot properly so that machines could count it." Brace adds that his studies show that the error rate is five times higher for absentee votes when compared with those cast at a polling site.

Yet in states such as Maryland, which encountered a series of problems on Primary Day 2006, elected officials are encouraging people to vote absentee. Fessler reports that voting was delayed for hours in September because someone forgot to deliver cards needed to run electronic voting machines.

Polls ran out of provisional ballotts and some voters were given pens to fill out forms which stated they had to be filled out with number two pencils. Fessler says the incidents prompted Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich, a Republican, to say he has no confidence in his state's electronic system and that voters should use absentee ballots instead.

Democrat Doug Duncan, chief executive in Maryland's Montgomery County, had similiar advice:

"I don't want people to just turn their backs on the election and say, well, they can't get their act together," he says. "Why bother going to vote? If you have concerns at all about the machines and about being able to have your vote counted accurately, then vote absentee."

Plenty of people across the country are following his advice.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carol Anne Clark Kelly
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