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THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

Election Day Becomes 'Just the Last Day to Vote'

In 2004, more than 70% of all voters have the option of casting their ballots early. It's forcing parties to change the way they campaign.

September 26, 2004|Maria L. La Ganga | Times Staff Writer

Throughout the United States, the election process is undergoing a major face-lift, one that now allows nearly three quarters of the country's voters to cast their ballots well before election day.

The number of states allowing some form of early voting without the excuse of travel, illness or age has tripled since 1996, as officials have increasingly allowed busy voters to cast ballots when it's convenient and thereby ease the frantic pace of election day for poll workers.

An estimated 15% of Americans voted early during the 2000 presidential election, either through the mail or in person, a figure that experts said could more than double this year.

"Election day is just the last day to vote in this country; it's not the only day," said Brian Lunde, founder of the nonpartisan group HelpingAmericansVote.org.

Nearly all of the potential battleground states targeted by President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry allow voters to cast their ballots before election day, either in person or by mail, without asking for any special dispensation.

Balloting in Iowa began Thursday, a week before the first presidential debate. Arizonans begin voting later this week. In California, where anyone who is registered may apply to vote permanently in absentia, voters can request an absentee ballot starting Oct. 4. Oregon, the only state that has all-mail voting, will send out most of its ballots beginning Oct. 15.

Lunde said this was the first election in history where an overwhelming majority of the electorate -- more than 70% of all voters -- have the option to vote early.

Both major parties are eagerly chasing the nation's early voters. In fact, the increase in early voting -- coupled with a tight race -- has forced the parties to change the way they campaign. They must spend more money, increase grass-roots efforts and start their outreach programs months early. They also must communicate with early voters while still running traditional get-out-the-vote efforts that culminate on the first Tuesday in November.

"As a general matter, you have to start your get-out-the-vote activities earlier," said Kerry pollster Mark Mellman. "It used to be you could build to one day. Now you have to replicate those activities over the course of many days.... It's more costly, because every day's election day."

Democrats hope relaxed vote-by-mail regulations will increase turnout among Latinos and African Americans -- groups that tend to support the party but might find going to the polls intimidating, particularly after the 2000 election, in which the ballots of black Florida voters were disproportionately disqualified. Republicans are counting on the changes to help them tap busy suburban parents.

Critics of early voting argued that it was flawed in ways both practical and philosophical. Because many early voting states allow nongovernment parties, such as unions, to collect absentee ballots, some believed that the process could lead to increased fraud or voter intimidation.

Curtis Gans, director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, released a study this month that looked at early and expanded absentee voting nationwide and concluded that it actually lowered overall turnout by a percentage point or two.

"The parties think it's wonderful," said Gans. But he said that what used to be concentrated efforts and spending to get out the vote "gets diffused over several days, weakening the impact of that money and effort."

Bruce Ackerman, Yale law and political science professor and co-author of the new book "Deliberation Day," argued that early voting cheated citizens of information and civic ritual. He said those who vote before the final weeks of a campaign might not see debates and couldn't factor in events that could change their minds.

"What's the point of voting?" he asked. "Is it just to cast a blind preference? Well then, if it's just to engage in a mindless ritual in which people don't think they have an obligation to listen to arguments on both sides and discuss matters with their neighbors and think about it, what's wrong with voting two years ahead of time?"

But Jean Hessburg, executive director of the Iowa Democratic Party, pointed to her state's turnout as evidence of early voting's benefits. In the 1998 general election -- the last before the parties began aggressively promoting early ballot casting, voter turnout was 55%. In the 2002 election, a comparable, non-presidential contest, turnout rose to 57%.

"I don't think there's any downside, if it gets more people to vote," said Hessburg. "No matter what, an increase in voter participation is always good."

As of Thursday, all registered Iowa voters were able to cast their ballots either through the mail, at authorized satellite voting locations or at the auditor's office in each county. Hessburg expected 35% of the state's voters would cast ballots early and was counting on her party's efforts to bank 200,000 votes for Kerry before Nov. 2.

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