An Early Voting Flood

Early voting has started in earnest in many states, marking a dramatic change in how Americans vote and how campaigns are run. Preliminary indications are that more people will cast their ballot prior to Election Day than in any campaign in the nation’s history.

Already, well over ten million people have cast their ballot for this November’s much-anticipated presidential election. This statistic is from just a few states and localities where these early voting numbers are available. In Georgia, for instance, more people have already voted early than voted early in all of the last presidential election.

These early numbers are startling, far outpacing what would be expected at this stage in the election. In the past, early voting starts as a trickle, with the spigot opening as the traditional Election Day approaches. These numbers could portend a higher level of early voting, higher overall turnout, or – most likely – both.

The apparent increase witnessed so far is part of the upward trend in early voting that has swept the country over the past two decades. In 1992, about 7 percent of all voters voted early; by 2004 that number exceeded 20 percent. The increase arises among states that have enacted early voting policies permitting people to vote absentee for any reason, to automatically receive an absentee ballot by mail or to vote at special early voting polling place in a high-traffic location.

Those who vote early have changed over the past 20 years. People who vote by traditional absentee ballot tend to be younger, single and highly educated; essentially students, military and professionals traveling on business.

Today, many people tend to be early voters, though early voters are on average older. This age disparity is consistent with the type of person who is motivated to vote early: a strong partisan who is certain of their vote.

Early voters obviously do not show up to vote on Election Day, which causes problems for exit pollsters stationed outside polling places. In 2004, the media’s national exit poll organization conducted phone surveys of early voters to supplement their Election Day polling. These surveys found that in all states – except Iowa – the early electorate was more Republican than the election day electorate, which is an expected pattern steeped in campaign folklore that a Democrat will win if they evenly split the early vote.

The deviating case of Iowa makes sense. In 2004, the Iowa Democratic Party conducted an intense early vote drive, a move that may have cost John Kerry the state since their Election Day ground game suffered.

We are seeing indications that Barack Obama’s campaign is successfully turning out their supporters in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, three states that provide demographic breakdowns of early voters. In Florida and North Carolina, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by two to one among early voters. In Georgia and North Carolina, African-Americans are a much greater share of the early electorate than of the overall 2004 electorate. What makes these numbers all the more impressive is not just their disparity towards Democrats, but that we would normally anticipate Democrats to lag behind Republicans at this stage in the game. Do not expect the well-financed Obama campaign to skimp on their Election Day mobilization efforts, either.

It is too soon to tell definitively if these early vote numbers represent a coming flood of early voting and Election Day turnout or if these represent pent up demand by enthusiastic Democrats finally able to cast their ballot. But that this question can even be asked is not encouraging for John McCain.

For McCain to win, he needs to turn the election around – now. The presidency is starting to slip from his grasp. Pre-election polling currently indicates Obama will hold all the states won by Kerry in 2004, plus Iowa and New Mexico. Obama wins the Electoral College if he wins Colorado, a state that he has had a small consistent lead in the polls throughout the year. More than 60 percent of Coloradans will cast their ballot early.

If McCain can not change the campaign dynamic, it will soon be too late for him to shift enough votes into his column to win. He may be able to take one of the states currently favoring Obama, but that will be an increasingly difficult task as ballots pile up in high-early vote battleground states like Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon and Washington.

It’s mid-October. Now is the time for an October surprise, before too many people can no longer be surprised.

View 2008 Early Voting Statistics »

Michael P. McDonald is an associate professor at George Mason University and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He calculates national turnout rates for academics and the media and he is co-editor of The Marketplace of Democracy: Electoral Competition in American Politics.