The Early Voting Transformation

A number of reporters have asked me how early voting may have changed campaigns.  I describe a longer period of voter mobilization.  I describe  get out the early vote rallies, such as Obama is holding in Illinois this week.  And I talk about how Election Day has been changed from a day where half or more of the citizenry go to a local school, community building, or government office to cast a ballot to the end of a two or three week period of balloting.

But sometimes a picture tells a thousand words, and I think the graphic below, comparing early voting rates in North Carolina in 2004, 2008, and for the first five of early voting in 2012, says it all.

If you were campaigning in the Tarheel State in 2004, elections were all about the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.  A few days before the 2004 election, about 15% of Democrats and Republicans had voted early.  A week out, less than 10% of ballots were cast.  These voters mattered, of course, especially in a close contest, but campaigns kept their resources in check to focus on the 85% of partisans who cast an Election Day ballot.

In 2008, Barack Obama’s candidacy was the trumpet of Joshua that felled the Election Day wall.  Anyone familiar with the 2008 race cannot forget the long lines of Black voters waiting in the Fall heat to cast a historic vote for the candidate who would eventually be elected as our first African American president.

But it wasn’t just Obama.  Usage among Republican and Unaffiliated voters also leapt in response to the key legislative change: making absentee voting a “one-stop” process, essentially converting it into early in-person voting.  The result was that 2.6 million out of 4.4 million ballots were cast early and, at least for Democrats, half of those came in 7 or more days before Election Day.

Fast forward to 2012.  Once again, voters are enduring long early voting lines.  Democratic rates in particular are exceeding 2008 rates.  Republicans are lagging, but still are turning out earlier than in 2008.  And any candidate who wants to win the state has to be already on the ground, because if they aren’t, their opponent could be 30-40% ahead by election day.

Image courtesy of the Winston Salem Journal