[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/10/27/early.voting.jpg caption="Voters sit in line for early voting on Friday in Boynton Beach, Florida. "]
Director, Early Voting Information Center at Reed College
If the 2008 election looks like a 100-year-storm, then early voting is an early warning system. And the waves of voters are already spilling over the dikes.
As of Friday October 24th, 12 days before election day, more than seven million votes had already been cast. Georgia and North Carolina voters have been waiting in lines of up to two hours. There are scattered reports in Florida of even longer lines.
But it is the numbers that are shocking. Early voting has smashed previous records in Texas, Florida, Illinois, Tennessee, Nevada–it's hard to find a state where records have not been broken.
Early voting in Georgia has already surpassed the total number voting early in 2004.
Records will be broken in many other states sometime next week.
Not only are a lot of citizens voting early this year, but the look of the early voter has changed. In the past, I've described early voting like an apple pie (it's apple picking season out here in
Oregon). Early voting doesn't make the pie any bigger–it doesn't draw new voters into the electorate–but it does take a slice out of the pie.
When you look at that early voting slice, it is usually a bit older, a bit whiter, a bit higher income, a bit better educated, and a bit more Republican. But that means the rest of the pie–the voters who wait
until election day–are a bit more Democratic.
What did Grandma put into the pie this year?
African Americans are voting early in unprecedented numbers. Blacks comprise 29% of the electorate in Georgia but 35% of the early electorate. They are 24.2% of the North Carolina electorate and 28.%
of the early electorate there. These may not seem like tremendous differences, but remember that, historically, African Americans have not opted to cast early ballots.
That slice also looks a lot more Democratic than it does in the past. In Franklin County, OH, a battleground county in a battleground state,the numbers are eye-opening: Democratic votes exceed Republican votes by a 12:1 margin.In other states, the numbers are not so lopsided,
but still trend toward the Democrats. In six of the eight states that report early voting data by party, Democrats are outpacing Republicans.
I have tried my best to spin these numbers for John McCain, but it's getting difficult. Let's look at some of the explanations.
Explanation 1: This is just a big wave of Democratic enthusiasm
Many Democrats are excited to finally cast a vote for Barack Obama and express their unhappiness with the Bush administration. As one early voter told me: "getting my ballot this year was like getting my Christmas present two weeks early. And I was not going to wait until Christmas day to open it!"
It's possible that this tide of Democratic voters will recede by Election Day, but there are two problems with this account. First,the past has shown that early voting enthusiasm almost always
translates into election day enthusiasm. This tide of voters will continue to rise. Second, as Obama is able to mark names off his list, he is going to be able to redeploy resources to target
undecided voters, while McCain still has to focus on his base. This cannot be good news.
Explanation 2: This is just a big wave of African American enthusiasm
This explanation has a lot more merit. There is no denying the historic nature of this election, both for African Americans and for women. I can certainly believe that the surprisingly high levels of
turnout are a combination of pent up excitement for the Democratic ticket, and the chance to vote for the first time for a Black candidate for President. In this case, I think there is a very real chance that the election day electorate will look whiter than normal.
Explanation 3: Republicans are just biding their time until Election Day
Finally, it's possible that Republicans have changed their stripes, and unlike the past three or four presidential contests, have transformed into election day voters. What I would worry about if I
were a GOP strategist, however, is that the voters hold their ballots for two reasons: uncertainty and unhappiness. If GOP voters are either uncertain about John McCain or unhappy with the election, it
cannot bode well for Republican turnout.
It's possible that all these Democrats are voting early and won't be around on Election Day. It's possible that Blacks are turning out early in unprecedented numbers to cast a Republican ballot. And it's possible that Republicans are simply biding their time, lulling the Democrats into another Presidential failure.
It's possible, but really improbable.
[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/10/23/art.florida.lines.jpg caption="People stand in line to vote early Wednesday in Pompano Beach, Fla. Unprecedented numbers of early voters in the South are prompting local election officials to take measures to make people comfortable as they wait for hours to cast their ballots."]
Director, Early Voting Information Center at Reed College
The first two days of early voting in Florida have not been kind to the Sunshine State. Already, elderly voters are having difficulties filling out ballots in Palm Beach County (the same county that produced the infamous butterfly ballot in 2000). Duval and Leon Counties are having problems feeding the ballots into the optical scanners. And voters throughout the state are experiencing long lines, sometimes multiple hours long.
It's not that Florida elections officials are not trying hard–I have met a number of local and state elections officials, and they are dedicated public servants who really just want to get the election
right. I have seen no evidence of a conspiracy to subvert the democratic process.
But what I have seen is a tendency among state leaders to respond *too* quickly to election breakdowns, adopting new technology and rejecting old technology without learning the lessons of the past.
This year, the problem that Florida is experiencing with long lines could have been anticipated. To the credit of state officials here, they decertified their electronic voting machines because voter confidence in the machines had reached rock bottom. But in their desire to move to a paper-based system, Florida adopted a relatively new and untested technology: "ballot on demand." Glitches associated with ballot on demand are the cause of most of the problems this year.
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