WASHNGTON – Americans are casting early ballots in droves this year, and their reasons are as varied as their politics: Some can't wait to register their opinions. Some like the convenience. Some just want to be left alone.
For others, it's all about making sure their votes are properly recorded.
In New Jersey's Somerset County, elections administrator Janice Hoffman says she's seeing more people make the extra effort to personally walk their ballots in.
"No dangling chads on mine!" a satisfied Barry Burke pronounced after voting electronically this week in Little Rock, Ark.
Whatever the voters' motivations, Democrats and Republicans alike are tracking their balloting day by day and county by county, hoping to turn the early-voting trend to their advantage. The big question for George W. Bush and John Kerry (search), whose campaigns have worked tirelessly to turn out early voters, is whether they are locking in new supporters or simply getting the same old voters out to the polls a little earlier.
"There's a basic rule here: More is better," said Charlie Baker, captain of the Democrats' early vote operation. "We are seeing, in a number of states, significantly higher vote-by-mail and early-voting numbers than historically has been the case and that has to be a good thing for the Democrats."
Republicans, for their part, claim their four-year-long early vote operation has been more effective at targeting sympathetic voters who might be less likely to turn out on Election Day. "What you're often seeing with the Democrats is simply the substitution of an absentee or early vote for an Election Day vote," said Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman.
Republicans are happy to point out an ABC News poll released Tuesday that found that among people who had already voted, 51 percent said they backed Bush and 47 percent Kerry. The difference is within the margin of sampling error.
With 32 states now offering some form of early voting, an AP-Ipsos poll taken last weekend found 11 percent of voters across the United States already had cast ballots, and another 11 percent intended to beat the Election Day rush as well. Early voting is particularly popular in the West, with half or more of all votes likely to be cast early in states such as Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Washington.
While an uptick in early voting appears sure, the impact on overall turnout is less certain.
Curtis Gans, director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, said recent history has found no increase in overall turnout associated with early voting. He says some regular voters who decide to request absentee ballots end up failing to turn them in, and the parties' mobilization efforts get more spread out and ungainly.
Still, both parties say they can find bright spots in the early voting trends.
Democratic officials point to Iowa, Florida, Nevada and Oregon as states where they are particularly encouraged. In Iowa, for example, where 277,000 people voted absentee four years ago, 287,000 already had voted as of Monday. In the state's largest county, Polk, nearly 34,000 of the early voters were registered Democrats, 18,000 were Republicans and 14,000 had no party affiliation.
In Democratic-leaning Clark County in Nevada, more than 143,000 early voters had turned out by Monday, with 45 percent of the ballots coming from Democrats and 41 percent from Republicans. Republicans said they were happy to be holding down the Democrats' historical advantage there.
While interest in this year's tight presidential race is clearly a factor driving the vigorous early voting, other forces are at work, too.
In South Dakota, some voters are thinking ahead while the sun shines to try to avoid the chance of bad weather later.
"They're thinking, 'It's nice out now, and I'm going to vote early,'" said Davison County Auditor Kathy Goetsch, who expects one-fourth of the county's registered voters to cast absentee ballots.
In Bangor, Maine, where requests for absentee ballots have exceeded levels of the 2000 election, city clerk Patti Dubois says interest in local issues like a property tax cap and a question about where to put the new police station is helping fuel interest in early voting. Maine Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn said some towns have run out of absentee ballots and had to dip into their regular stocks of ballots.
Some voters just feel so strongly they don't want to wait another day to register their opinions. In Oregon, where all voting is by mail, Megan Hassen, a Salem office manager, usually waits until the last day to vote, but not this year. She voted Monday.
"I don't want to see Bush re-elected," she said.
In Washington state, 60 percent to 65 percent of the total vote is expected to come in early — in some cases simply because voters want to be left alone.
"Lots of folks have made up their minds, and they figure that if they send in their ballots, the campaigns will stop pestering them," said Snohomish County Auditor Bob Terwilliger.