WASHINGTON — With a potential record-breaking turnout expected on Nov. 4, states are doing what they can to prevent a repeat of the long lines and complications of elections past.
And they’re doing it with early voting.
"It's kind of like the movie Jaws,” said Doug Chapin, director of Electionline.org at the Pew Center on the States. “We're gonna need a bigger boat.”
“Typically when we talk about early voting, it’s been viewed as a convenience for the voter," Chapin added. "What’s been interesting…is increasingly, in 2008, it’s as much about the convenience of election officials as it is for their voters.”
Already under way
Early voting is already under way in 11 states: Pennsylvania, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Georgia, Missouri and South Dakota.
In Kentucky, which started voting last Thursday, the first state ballot was cast for John McCain while the second went to Barack Obama.
And the first absentee ballots went out August 26th, more than two months before Election Day. By the end of this week, voters in 15 states will have the opportunity to cast their ballots. And by Oct. 5, some form of early voting will be happening in 23 states.
At its inception, early voting meant only absentee voting. And it required a reason, like not being in the state on Election Day, or having a disability that made going to a polling center impossible.
But, increasingly, states are moving toward early voting without an excuse.
In 2000, an estimated 12.7 million people — roughly 12 percent of voters — cast their ballots early. In 2004, that number doubled to about 25 million, or about 20 percent of 122 million total voters.
Early voters on the rise
Election officials across the country estimate that this year’s number could rise to about 40 to 50 percent of voters in some states and one third overall. So, if this year’s national turnout tops 140 million, as many as 45 to 50 million votes could be cast early.
The number of states offering no-excuse, in-person early voting is also on the rise. In 1996, just 11 states offered it. In 2004, that number rose to 26.
This year, with the addition of Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey, Texas and the all-important state of Ohio, voters in 32 states no longer need a reason to vote early. Voting is becoming easier in other ways too.
In North Carolina, for example, voters will have the chance to cast ballots in shopping malls. In Alaska, Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin's home state, polling places have been set up at local airports.
But early voting has its critics, who say ballot security, potential fraud, tally problems and an eroded sense of community are just some of the potential drawbacks.
“In a polling place, no one can go in that booth with you,” said John Fortier, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “Absentee and Early Voting: Trends, Promises, and Perils.”
“There’s some checking in that you are who you say you are,” said Fortier, but when voting takes place outside of polling places or by mail, “there are some additional opportunities for something to happen with the ballot.”
“That’s not something you have people watching over.”
For example in 1996, two candidates for county commissioner in Georgia were convicted of vote fraud after offering $20 for absentee votes.
“The challenge is it creates another level of complexity,” Chapin said. “Anything new always increases the chance for problems.”
Still, state election officials, fearful of being overwhelmed on Election Day, are encouraging voters to cast their ballots earlier and lessen the November burden.
In Nevada, the secretary of state's office says it expects an 85 percent turnout with up to half of its ballots turned in early. The state is holding a two-week, in-person voting period, with additional polling places open and ready for balloting.
In Ohio, where no-excuse, early voting was adopted in 2006, controversy is brewing in places like Columbus. Critics want election officials to purchase more voting machines to avoid the long lines the state had in 2004.
But county officials say that they’ve actually doubled the number of voting machines, and additionally, are asking people to vote early. They’re projecting that as many as 200,000 will take them up on the offer.
“We’re hoping the ease and convenience of people voting from the kitchen table” will “mitigate long lines,” said Ben Piscitelli, spokesman for the Franklin County Board of Elections. “We can guarantee that if you cast a ballot early, you won’t have to stand in line,” he added.
In Virginia, where an excuse is required to vote early, ballots were available in Fairfax County on Friday, but election officials, citing record requests, are pressing to get them out elsewhere around the state.
Oregon has moved entirely to a vote-by-mail system, one that encompasses both early and Election Day balloting.
Neighboring Washington State is following suit — 37 of 39 counties have agreed to go entirely mail-in. Early voting starts there on Oct. 17.
Candidates see opportunity
The Obama and McCain campaigns recognize the potential impact of early voting and are ramping up efforts with registration drives, phone calls, mailers and even text messages to lock those votes in early.
The Obama campaign has created what it calls a "one-stop voter registration site, VoteForChange.com."
The site, the campaign said in an e-mail to supporters on Sunday, "Lets you do it all: Check your registration status, register to vote, request an absentee ballot, and find your early voting site or polling location."
Early voting, however, isn’t likely to decide the outcome of this election.
That’s because election experts and polling data suggests that undecided voters will be the crucial factor in this race.
And that demographic isn’t likely to head to the polls early, since, well, they haven’t made their minds up yet.
“For all the talk about how polarized the country has become,” Chapin said, “that ever-declining sliver of undecideds may still hold the key.”