COLUMBUS, OHIO — The campaign isn't over, but the voting is underway.
Before watching the presidential debates and without waiting for the next round of TV ads, millions of voters who have made up their minds about John McCain and Barack Obama will cast ballots before election day, thanks to expansive new early-voting laws.
In parts of Georgia, voting began last week. In Iowa, residents may vote at county auditor offices starting today. And in Ohio, a battleground state that Obama and McCain each view as crucial to making it into the White House, voting opens Tuesday.
"Some people now refer to October as election month," said Ryan Meerstein, director of the McCain campaign's Ohio operation.
More than 30 states have adopted methods allowing people to vote before Nov. 4 -- no excuses needed.
About 14% of the electorate chose early balloting in the 2000 campaign. That figure jumped to 20% in 2004, and this time around it could rise to more than 30%, according to Paul Gronke, head of the early voting information center at Reed College in Oregon.
In Los Angeles County, early voting begins Oct. 7. The county has done away with early voting conducted on touch-screen machines at select polling places, and instead accepts ballots submitted by mail or in person through election day. The last day to request an early ballot is Oct. 28.
Both presidential campaigns encourage early voting, particularly among people who tend to vote sporadically. Over roughly a six-week period, the two sides can target people in that demographic with mailings, phone calls and in-person visits in hopes of banking their votes. At McCain's local headquarters here Saturday, about a dozen volunteers made phone calls to Franklin County voters, asking if they received the absentee ballot application that the campaign has sent to roughly a million Ohioans.
"It's the easiest way to avoid the election day lines. Do you plan to use your absentee ballot?" one volunteer asked a voter whom she was speaking to by phone. She recorded the answers electronically, feeding them into a database kept by the McCain campaign.
"Early voting is one of the big phenomena this year," said Tad Devine, chief strategist for Democrat John F. Kerry's 2004 presidential bid. "This puts a premium on early organization. It affects where you send your candidate and when. It affects where you spend money on television times."
Each side is also tailoring strategies to get core supporters to the polls early. Literature sent to Ohioans by the state's Republican Party urges people to vote for the GOP ticket as early as possible. The mailer suggests that Republicans will keep the nation safe in a dangerous world.
"No terrorist attacks on American soil since September 11," it reads. "Have they given up? Ask the rest of the world."
The Obama campaign has hung posters in hundreds of barber shops across Ohio, providing a toll-free phone number people can call for information about early voting. Obama is shown sitting in a barber chair, wearing a smock.
Obama aides are planning to lure people to vote early in Ohio by handing out concert tickets near polling sites. The campaign is also considering taking college students by shuttle bus to cast their ballots early, with the promise of a happy-hour event afterward.
One Obama aide said that in Ohio, the campaign is relying on heavy turnout from students and blacks who have a "mixed record" of voting in past elections.
Early voting gives the campaign more than a month to track such supporters and make sure they follow through and vote.
"You have a month to badger people you've identified as supporters," said the Obama aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing campaign strategy. "If you have a month, you have a better chance of making sure they've turned out to vote. So it's a huge advantage."
In Iowa, another Obama aide said, "we're not really targeting our best Democrats. We're targeting the ones who don't vote very often."
Across the nation, states are liberalizing early voting laws. Officials in some states say that by getting people to cast ballots beforehand, there is less pressure come election day on voting machines and poll workers.
"States perceive it to be in their interests," Gronke said.
Ohio has moved to "no fault" voting, meaning anyone can vote early for any reason. (In the 2004 election cycle, voters had to provide an excuse.)
Georgia has a similar law in effect for people who want to vote in advance. About 5% of the state's electorate voted early in the 2004 presidential election. This year, state officials hope the number will climb to 25%.
"We are seeing a real increase in the popularity of early voting in Georgia," said Matt Carrothers, a spokesman for the Georgia secretary of state's office.