Game On: Here Come the Votes

Pennsylvanians serving in the military may have completed the task already. Kentuckians and North Carolinians can start any time now. And in the next week or so people in up to a dozen more states can go ahead and be done with it.

Voting for president, that is.

The political world may be focused on Election Day, Nov. 4, but balloting already is beginning in the 2008 presidential election. The vehicle – absentee voting – is a growing and potentially transformational phenomenon in American politics; in 2004 more than one in five voters cast their ballots before Election Day actually arrived.

It can make a dramatic difference in campaign strategies. A knockout punch in the debates won’t matter a whit to people who’ve already cast their ballots, and last-minute appeals make no difference at all to first-minute voters. And they’re coming. Like now.

Absentee ballots became available yesterday in Kentucky and North Carolina, according to election officials in both states. For some military voters the gates opened even earlier; in Pennsylvania, the secretary of state’s office says county officials were required as of Aug. 26 to start mailing ballots to overseas service members in “extremely remote or isolated areas” who’ve requested them. That can include Iraq, where the U.S. Postal Service says delivery takes 7 to 10 days. (Ballots go out to other Pennsylvanians overseas starting Friday, while those here in the states have to wait until Oct. 21.)

More are coming, soon. A summary prepared by The Associated Press for the National Election Pool, the media group that tallies votes on Election Day, says absentee ballots should start to become available in nine more states by the end of this week. Five more states should follow anywhere from Sunday through Tuesday, with more coming.

The rules on absentee voting vary from highly restrictive to wide open, all the way to Oregon, where all voting is by mail. Twenty-eight other states have unconditional absentee voting, seven more have relatively loose rules (including Washington, D.C.) and 15 have strict ones.

There are other ways to go: Nineteen states also allow “in-person absentee voting,” starting anywhere from 30 to as many as 45 days before Election Day in Maine (depending on when ballots are printed), six weeks before Election Day in South Dakota and 40 days before Election Day in Iowa and Wyoming. (This allows you to drop off a completed absentee ballot at a county election office.) Seventeen states also make arrangements for early voting (using voting machines set up early at satellite polling places); that starts as soon as Oct. 2 in Arizona and Oct. 6 in California.

It all adds up. That AP summary says 21.9 percent of votes cast for president in 2004 were absentee or early votes, up from 15.7 percent in 2000 – more than 26 million votes, soaring as high as 68.8 percent of the total in Washington state, 53.1 percent in Nevada and 51.1 percent in Texas. Among anticipated battleground states, absentees accounted for 50.6 percent of voters in New Mexico, 47.8 percent in Colorado and 36.2 percent in Florida, though many fewer in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

How they voted isn't perfectly known, but absentees sure can make a difference. In our final pre-election tracking poll in 2004, 15 percent of “likely” voters in fact said they’d already voted (our estimate did not include any overseas absentees). They divided by 53-45 percent between George W. Bush and John Kerry, compared with a dead-even 48-48 percent race among the rest.

This year absentee voting could go even higher. Which is why, if the candidates seem to be running like there’s no tomorrow, that’s because, for some voters, there is.

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