Early voting: Is the election already decided?

Michelle Obama holds up her absentee ballot Michelle Obama holds up her absentee ballot

For the first time, the US president is voting early, and he's not alone - 7.2 million Americans have already voted, less than two weeks before election day. So is it possible the election has already been decided?

President Barack Obama will make history this week when he steps into a Chicago voting booth and casts his ballot - a full 10 days ahead of Election Day.

It's meant to raise awareness for early voting, which both campaigns think could be the key to this election.

Early voting used to be relegated just to expatriates and military members who sent in absentee ballots.

But this election, experts predict that at least 35% of those who vote in this election will cast an early vote this year, up from 30% in 2008. And in crucial swing states like Florida, Colorado, Iowa and Ohio, that number might be much higher.

"Colorado is one where 85% of the votes are going to be cast prior to election day," says Michael McDonald, an associate professor of government and politics at George Mason University. "Florida is going to be close to two-thirds. In Ohio, they're on pace for 40-45% early voting."

Trends in early voting

Just as the "women's vote" is really a diverse collection of individual voters with individual interests, the "early vote" is made up of several different factions - with surprising habits and patterns. A study of Florida early voters found these surprising facts:

  • African-American voters are more likely to vote on Sunday, possibly due to church-related get-out-the vote efforts
  • Experienced voters who have voted in several elections tend to vote early in the early voting period. Those who have recently registered to vote towards the end
  • Senior citizens are more likely to vote during the week.

Source: Michael Herron, professor of government, Dartmouth College

All these states, he says, have mechanisms that make it easy for citizens to cast their vote ahead of the 6 November election.

Though early voting has begun in most states that allow it, the votes themselves won't be counted until election day. But McDonald - who tracks how many early votes have been cast and, when possible, by which political party - says that it may be possible to determine the eventual winner by watching hotly-contested swing states.

"In 2008, the week before the election I became convinced that Obama had won because he was doing so well in Colorado and Colorado played so prominently in the electoral map at that time," he says.

In 2012, however, the race is too close to read the early voting tea leaves - but McDonald says the bulk of early votes will come in next week, at which point stronger trends might point to an eventual winner.

Early voting in one form or another has been a factor in American politics for at least 20 years, says Trey Hood, associate professor of political science at the University of Georgia. Then, states like Texas and Tennessee hoped to increase voter turnout by providing more chances to vote.

Currently, 32 states and the District of Columbia offer voters a chance to cast their ballot before election day - either through "no excuse" absentee ballots, which can be requested without explanation, or early voting centres, which are often open on weekends, when it's easier for some voters to get to the polls. (In every state, members of the military, federal employees, and citizens living abroad are all able to request absentee ballots.)

Two men place ballots into a drop-off box Two election judges transfer early ballots from a drop box outside of a library in Denver, Colorado

In the last election - when thousands of early votes cast for Barack Obama put him ahead in states like North Carolina - early voting went from being a matter of convenience to a political strategy.

"It got people thinking - how does early voting effect the campaign cycle in terms of mobilising voters?" says Hood.

Now, both campaigns are focusing on early voters as a way to make sure their candidates get as many votes as possible.

"We don't have an election day here, we have 11 election days," says Joe Zepecki, the Wisconsin communications director for Obama for America. When Wisconsin's early voting centres opened up this week, the Obama campaign led organised trips to the polls, and some die-hard Obama supporters camped outside the centres in order to cast their vote on day one.

Meanwhile, Romney supporters are trumping the increased rate of Republican voters as a portent of the eventual election results.

Tales of early voting

An absentee ballot
  • Michael Pacchione, Portland Oregon: In Oregon, all residents vote by mail. "I love it. When I first moved here I was a little paranoid, but I know that our percentage of voter turnout is much higher."
  • Pete Firenze, Monterey, California: "I haven't voted in a voting booth for 15 years," says Frieze, a military officer. Though he moves about every two years for his job, he's registered to vote in Florida, and receives his absentee ballot through the Federal Voter Assistance Program website.
  • Jamie Kaplan, Cleveland, Ohio: The Obama supporter requested an early ballot to make his voice heard early. "I wanted to make sure my vote was counted."

"NORTH CAROLINA: GOP voting early at 126% of 2008 levels while Dems turning out at 97%. Now 50k more GOP have voted vs similar point in 2008," tweeted Adrian Gray, a former director of strategy at the Republican National Committee

The extended election cycle allows campaigns to extend their message to the crucial undecided and independent voters.

"Every person who casts an early vote, the campaigns are able to go on to the next person on the list," says McDonald. "They can go further down that list and start contacting people who are low-to-moderate propensity voters and not just focus on high intensity voters."

That, at least, is the prevailing theory. But political scientists don't yet know if the crush of early voting signifies an added bonus for candidates, or if it merely pushes forward votes that would otherwise come on election day.

In 2008, Obama's early voting success may have had more to do with the man than the method.

"You had a nexus of events that are never going to happen again," said Hood, namely a black candidate representing one of the two major candidates for presidency for the first time, combined with a surge of voter enthusiasm and early deciders that led to an early swell at the polls.

"I'm waiting to see what happens in 2012 - do we see these patterns continue, or was a lot of it due to the Obama candidacy?" asks Hood.

The lack of certainty hasn't stopped campaigns from pressing the early voting option - and citizens from casting their votes.

Early voting in swing states

  • Virginia: Statewide, early voting is up 9.4% compared to 2008 - but turnout in counties that went to Obama is down. (Virginia does not have early voting stations, and requires an excuse to cast an absentee ballot.)
  • Nevada: Obama has 61% of the early vote, Romney leads 51% among those who have yet to vote
  • Ohio: Obama leads 2-1 among early voters, with 14% of voters (based on 2008 totals) casting an early ballot
  • Florida: 40% of early voters so far have been Democrats, 45% have been Republican, 15% independent or from other parties. In 2008, early voters were 40% Democratic, 41% Republican and 19% independent or from other parties.

Source:Public Policy Polling, Time/Washington Post, United States Election Project

"We were bombarded with voting by mail opportunities," says Amy Palajin, who lives in Des Moines, Iowa. She and her husband received visits from Democratic party officials and literature by mail. They both requested an absentee ballot and sent their votes in earlier this month.

"We wanted to put our vote out there early, so if there was an opportunity to help give any momentum to Obama, that seemed like a good way to do it," she says. As the mother to a five-month old baby, she also wanted to ensure that she had flexibility to vote.

Palajin also liked that voting early and from home allowed her more time to go over the ballot. She was able to research the candidates and provisions online with her ballot by her side. "I wanted to make sure I was voting the way I wanted to," she says.

Still, she says, despite its convenience, early voting lacked a certain romance.

"I like going in person," she says. In 2008, she was living in New York City and voted for Barack Obama at a school in Harlem. "The line snaked around the whole gymnasium, and everyone was really excited. There were a lot of kids experiencing voting for the first time - it was really quite festive."

Voting early, she said, was anticlimactic.

Depending on how the polls break next week, campaign operatives may soon be saying the same thing.

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