Serenaded by their world famous marching band, almost a thousand students, faculty and administrators marched off the campus of Florida A&M University on Monday. It was not a protest march — at the head of the line was the university’s president, James Ammons.
Forty-five minutes later, they decamped on the lawn of the Leon County Courthouse in Tallahassee. And they voted.
“I feel today is a very important day in history,” said Robert Jones of Orlando, a student at the historically black college. “Hope to elect the first black president of the United States.”
Election Day isn’t until next month, but these Rattlers of FAMU have already cast their ballots in the presidential election. That’s because Florida opens it polling places and allows registered voters to do their civic duty well before Election Day.
Shortly after the FAMU contingent showed up, a second wave of student voters from Florida State University arrived en masse at the courthouse, a turnout that Ion Sancho, Leon County’s supervisor of elections, said was emblematic of overwhelming enthusiasm for early voting this year.
“Early voting is really going to set all-time records here in Leon County,” Sancho said. “I would probably say across the state, they’re going to set records, as well.”
In fact, election experts predict that up to 40 percent of the electorate will vote early in Florida, one of 31 states that let registered voters show up early and vote without restriction. Three other states and the District of Columbia allow voters to cast their ballots in person ahead of time if they have an approved excuse for not being able to make it on Election Day.
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Millions of votes in the bank
Thanks to aggressive voter registration efforts by both parties and fueled by younger voters’ enthusiasm for Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., election experts predict that a third of the electorate will already have voted by Nov. 4, up from 15 percent in 2000 and 20 percent in 2004.
The relatively recent phenomenon of early voting — often categorized as “in-person absentee voting,” as opposed to mail-in absentee balloting — presents both opportunities and challenges for candidates and voters. And it means the familiar problems of faulty machines and frustrated voters are played out over weeks instead of hours.
By getting voters to the polls early, the campaigns of Obama and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., can bank millions of votes and focus their energies on other segments of the electorate.
Obama, in particular, has made early voting a cornerstone of his strategy, holding giant “Early Vote for Change” rallies urging Democrats to show up in advance. He has also blanketed Democrats and pastors in minority communities with “vote early” e-mail messages and placed ads in the backgrounds of more than a dozen popular video games.
McCain, by contrast, is relying on his firm supporters to make it to the polls on Nov. 4, Rich Beeson, political director for the Republican National Committee, told The Associated Press. Republicans are focusing their early voting efforts on first-time and swing voters, who might be discouraged by long lines on Election Day.
Partly as a result, election officials report a disproportionally high turnout among registered Democrats in early voting so far, especially in urban centers like Atlanta, Las Vegas and Houston.
Through Monday in Las Vegas, for example, early ballots were cast by 31,875 registered Democrats and 13,371 registered Republicans, the Clark County registrar said, while in Ohio, Democratic voters outnumbered Republicans by 2-to-1 on Monday. Democratic advantages were also reported in Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina and New Mexico.
How those voters actually voted will not be known until Election Day, but Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, said such numbers revealed an “enthusiasm gap,” with “Obama voters more enthusiastic than a lot of McCain supporters.”
But Abramowitz and other experts cautioned against reading too much into those numbers, because an early vote is still just one vote — the same as one cast on Election Day. They noted that Republicans were more likely to vote through the traditional absentee ballot, potentially evening out the imbalance.
In Florida, for example, the secretary of state’s office reported that Democratic voters outnumbered Republican voters by 2-to-1 on Monday, the first day of early voting. At the same time, it noted that Republicans held a 17 percentage point lead in traditional absentee ballot requests.
“The more important question is whether (early Democratic voting) will translate into higher turnout” than usual among Democrats overall, Abramowitz said.
‘Such a historic election’
Early voting was adopted in many states after the disputed 2000 election, and this year it has put down deep roots. Across the country, election officials report record-shattering early turnout.
“There is so much passion coming from both sides. This is such a historic election in so many different ways,” said Lynn Bailey, director of the Board of Elections in Richmond County, Ga.
Nearly 700,000 Georgians and 500,000 North Carolinians had already voted by Wednesday, with nearly two weeks to go, while Bruce Sherbet, elections administrator in Dallas County, Texas, predicted that early voting numbers from 2008 would swamp those of 2004.
“If it sustains and continues through the 12-day period like this, there’s not going to be anything close to compare it to,” he said.
Meanwhile, in Houston and the rest of Harris County, Texas, the turnout on Monday, the first day of early voting, was 83 percent higher that it was on the same day four years ago.
“There are many factors — from the first woman potential vice president to an African-American running for president,” Harris County Clerk Beverly B. Kaufman said. “No one will ever say that 2008 in Houston was ho hum.”
But while welcoming the show of civic interest, some election experts cautioned that early voting has potential downsides.
The problem for the candidates is that banking millions of votes in advance means those votes are locked in and cannot be swayed. That puts pressure on the campaigns to burn through their cash weeks ahead of the election, before too many votes are set in stone.
“You can’t hold your big guns right to the end,” said Paul Gronke, director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Portland, Ore. “When up to 25 or 30 percent of the electorate has already cast a ballot, it might not be wise to wait until the last minute” to try a game-changing play.
Voting early also means a voter is stuck with his or her decision, no matter what happens in the final days of the campaign.
“Once you cast that vote, there’s still two weeks or a month to go, and what happens if something eventful happens with a campaign or a candidate during that period and you change your mind?” said Craig Wilson, a political science professor at the University of Montana.
Still a few bugs in the system
Early balloting also means more opportunities for something to go wrong. In many states, long lines have led to long waits — two hours in parts of Florida, 90 minutes in Houston and Chicago and an hour in Charlotte, N.C.
And familiar problems of the past keep springing up:
- In Florida — scene of the dispute that garbled the 2000 election — ballot-reading machines failed in Duval County, while in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek is threatening to file a lawsuit because some polling places have too few voter machines to handle the crowds.
Meek, who said excessive waits could disenfranchise voters, compared Monday — the first day of early voting — to a churning hurricane. “Let’s consider this a Category 1 today,” he said. “By November 4, it will be a Category 5, if not 6.”
- In Ohio, voters turned up at polling places in Wayne County this month only to find no ballots. Patty Johns, director of the county’s elections board, said they would be sent ballots in the mail.
- In Indiana, a judge is weighing arguments in a motion to halt early voting and throw out the votes in heavily Democratic Gary, Hammond and East Chicago, where Republicans allege a procedural violation in the elections board’s vote to approve the voting locations.
- In West Virginia, some Democratic voters in Putnam and Jackson counties complained that touch-screen machines changed their votes to Republican.
- In Texas, voting machines failed in several locations this week. Voters in the Acres Homes area of Houston were told to go home and come back later when the machines were fixed. Meanwhile, the computer mainframe crashed under the weight of the heavy turnout in Corpus Christi and surrounding Nueces County, election officials said.
“Here we are, the first day, again not being prepared,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas.
Election officials in all of the troubled jurisdictions chalked up the difficulties to first-day glitches. They promised that the problems would quickly be fixed and urged voters not to be discouraged.
West Virginia Secretary of State Betty Ireland said the state’s touch screens were overly sensitive and needed to be recalibrated from time to time. She said voters concerned about their machines should ask poll workers to move them to another machine.
Lester Sola, elections supervisor in Miami-Dade County, Fla., said officials “recognize that there is a concern, and we will be looking to address those concerns either with more personnel, more goodwill ambassadors and offering our voters the opportunity to cast an absentee ballot.”