Ric Feld  /  AP
Two Gwinnett County, Ga., voters walk past a sign advising of a two-hour wait to cast early ballots as they leave the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center in Lawrenceville, Ga., on Wednesday.
updated 10/27/2004 5:15:02 PM ET 2004-10-27T21:15:02

Early voters are casting ballots at a runaway pace in Arizona’s biggest county. They’ve exhausted absentee ballots in some towns in Maine. They’re far outpacing 2000 in Florida hot spots.

With 32 states now offering some form of early voting, an AP/Ipsos poll taken last weekend found 11 percent of voters across the United States already had cast ballots, and another 11 percent intended to beat the Election-Day rush as well. Coast to coast, including hotly contested states such as Iowa, Florida, Arizona and Nevada, anecdotal evidence points to increased interest in early voting, a trend that both parties are tracking day by day and county by county as they try to turn it to their advantage.

In Florida’s Leon County, for example, the focus of intense litigation during the recount dispute of four years ago, nearly 31,000 people had cast absentee ballots by Tuesday, compared with a little more than 10,000 absentees cast throughout the 2000 race. As well, 8,000 people in the county have taken advantage of in-person early voting, an option that wasn’t available four years ago.

In Washington state, another battleground, 60 to 65 percent of the total vote is expected to come in early — in some cases simply because voters want to be left alone.

“Lots of folks have made up their minds, and they figure that if they send in their ballots, the campaigns will stop pestering them,” said Snohomish County Auditor Bob Terwilliger.

The big question for George Bush and John Kerry, whose campaigns have worked tirelessly to turn out early voters, was whether they were locking in new supporters or simply getting the same old voters out to the polls earlier than usual.

An ABC News poll released Tuesday found that among people who had already voted, 51 percent said they backed Bush and 47 percent Kerry, a difference that was within the margin of sampling error.

For now, both parties are patting themselves on the back.

“There’s a basic rule here: More is better,” said Charlie Baker, captain of the Democrats’ early-vote operation. “We are seeing, in a number of states, significantly higher vote-by-mail and early-voting numbers than historically has been the case and that has to be a good thing for the Democrats.”

Democratic officials point to Iowa, Florida, Nevada and Oregon as states where they are particularly encouraged by early voting trends. For example, in Iowa, where 277,000 people voted absentee four years ago, 287,000 already had voted as of Monday. In the state’s largest county, Polk, nearly 34,000 of the early voters were registered Democrats, 18,000 were Republicans, and 14,000 had no party affiliation.

Republicans, for their part, claim their four-year-long early vote operation has been more carefully calibrated than the opposition’s to capture sympathetic voters who might be less likely to turn out on Election Day. “What you’re often seeing with the Democrats is simply the substitution of an absentee or early vote for an Election Day vote,” said Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman.

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Democratic-leaning Clark County in Nevada is one particularly hard-fought front in the battle for early votes. More than 143,000 early voters had turned out by Monday, with 45 percent of the ballots coming from Democrats and 41 percent from Republicans. That gave both parties reason to boast: Democrats for their numerical advantage, Republicans that they’ve held down the Democrats’ historical margins.

While interest in this year’s tight presidential race is clearly a factor driving the vigorous early voting, other forces are at work, too.

After all the disputed ballots of 2000, voters seem particularly concerned about making sure their choices are properly tallied. In New Jersey’s Somerset County, for example, elections administrator Janice Hoffman reports, “I see more people walking their ballots in, actually physically in, than in past years.”

In South Dakota, some voters are thinking ahead while the sun shines to try to avoid the chance of bad weather later.

“They’re thinking, ’It’s nice out now, and I’m going to vote early,”’ said Davison County Auditor Kathy Goetsch, who expects one fourth of the county’s registered voters to cast absentee ballots.

BUSH VS. KERRY: Comparing the candidates from issue-to-issue.In Bangor, Maine, where requests for absentee ballots have exceeded 2000 levels, city clerk Patti Dubois says interest in local issues like a property tax cap and a question about where to put the new police station are helping to fuel interest in early voting. Maine Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn said some towns have run out of absentee ballots and had to dip into their regular stocks of ballots.

Some voters just feel so strongly they don’t want to wait another day to register their opinions. In Oregon, where all voting is by mail, Megan Hassen, a Salem office manager, usually waits until the last day to vote, but not this year. She voted Monday.

“I don’t want to see Bush re-elected,” she said.

The whole notion of safely locking up votes ahead of time sounds great in theory. But sometimes, reality is a little messier.

In Broward County in Florida, 58,000 absentee ballots that election officials say they gave to the Postal Service for delivery two weeks ago are missing.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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