In an election year when just a few thousand votes in a few states could decide the winner, the growing number of voters who cast ballots weeks before Election Day (search) is transforming the landscape for political campaigns.
Thirty-two states now offer some form of early voting, giving campaigns a chance to lock down hundreds of thousands of ballots long before Nov. 2, and focus more intensely on undecided voters in the final days before polls close.
Election officials say early voting is convenient but others say the trend is misguided — depriving voters of critically important information late in the campaign cycle, and undermining the nation of one of its few collective, democratic experiences.
"Early voting has become very critical," said Clint Reed, who coordinates the Republican Party's campaign in Arkansas, one of the states that has been targeted as a battleground.
"Politics has become so much more of a scientific numbers game. Candidates from top to bottom calculate very specific vote goals, and how to achieve them. Every campaign, going into Election Day, wants to know how many votes they need. And early voting can get you there."
Basically a relaxed version of absentee voting and variously called convenience voting, unconditional voting, or no-excuse absentee voting, it drops requirements that people must be ill or out-of-town to vote early. Many states allow voters to vote in person, and even set up "satellite" polling places. Others only accept mailed votes.
The trend has been steadily increasing. Somewhere between 15 percent and 20 percent of all voters nationwide cast their ballots early, and that number is expected to rise to 25 percent this year, according to Curtis Gans at the Washington-based Committee for the Study of the American Electorate (search).
Arkansas, Florida, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina and North Dakota all expanded or began early voting since the last presidential election.
"We're in 2004, and both parents are working. Kids are in school, with 500 activities a week. People's lives are such that they're not able to come to a screeching halt and march down to their local elementary school on Election Day," said Meredith Imwalle with the National Association of Secretaries of State (search).
Imwalle said anecdotal evidence indicates early voting boosts turnout. Florida, for one, has begun a statewide advertising campaign encouraging people to vote, and to vote early.
Gans, however, said data related to mail-in early voting "unequivocally" shows it worsens turnout, while information about walk-in early voting is mixed and unconvincing.
"It's essentially a device for lazy, middle- and upper-class people who would likely vote anyway," Gans said. "The problem of voting in the United States is not procedural, but rather motivational. ... People who want to fix the turnout problem are looking for a quick fix, and they're doing something, and it's probably wrong."
Another observer argued that the turn to early voting is likely to further erode the sense of citizenship throughout the country, and weaken people's obligation to pay attention to the election and make a thoughtful decision.
"This is terrible," said Bruce Ackerman, a Yale University law professor and co-author of "Deliberation Day," a book that argues for making Election Day a holiday and carving out another, separate day two weeks earlier for people to discuss and debate the issues surrounding an election.
"The fact of the matter is, there is a lot of discussion in the last four weeks before an election. A lot more. A good citizen should expose themself to this conversation when it occurs and not opt out of it," he said. "We're going in the wrong way, on both soundbite democracy and the erosion of the only ritual we have left."
For the campaigns, what matters is how early voting can boost a victory.
One of the independent groups working on behalf of the Democrats, America Coming Together (search), is devoting a significant part of its staffpower and cash to encourage would-be voters to cast their ballots early, especially those who have never or only rarely voted before.
"One of the primary advantages is simply to bank votes — better to have the bird in the hand," said Jim Jordan, spokesman for America Coming Together, a group that's raised millions of dollars and aims to spend it specifically to contact voters.
"People find voting by mail less mysterious, more convenient and less confusing. We have thousands and thousands of employees going door to door in the battleground states and they talk to virtually everyone about early voting and vote-by-mail," Jordan said.
Reed, in Arkansas, said while the big chunk of early voters — he estimates about 16 percent of Arkansans cast their ballots early in 2000 — means his volunteers must convince their candidate's supporter to act earlier, it also frees up resources for the homestretch of the campaign.
"You can spend the last 72 hour of your campaign, or the last 96 hours, or the last two weeks, focusing on those independent swing voters," he said.