By tradition, Americans choose presidents on the first Tuesday in November—the 6th, this year. In reality, voting in Iowa begins on September 27. Five days later, Ohioans start casting ballots. At that point, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney won’t even have had their first debate.
More than two-thirds of Americans live in states or localities that permit early voting. In 2008, about 30 percent of the 131 million ballots cast nationwide were early or absentee. That percentage, up from single digits in the early 1990s, is expected to increase this year in the 32 states where early voting is allowed. The case for an extended polling period instead of a single Election Day is easy enough to make: Early voters don’t have to fret about weather, long lines, or balky polling equipment, and a sick kid or unexpected work trip won’t prevent them from casting a ballot.
That’s the civics textbook version, anyway. In reality, the rules spelling out who gets to vote when are a powerful political tool that can give an edge to one party or the other. In some early voting states, Republicans are maneuvering to maximize their own early ballots while keeping the other side from locking in votes before Election Day.
In Ohio, the Obama campaign has filed suit in federal court over changes approved by the GOP-controlled legislature that limit in-person early voting for some people and not for others. Under new rules in Ohio, families of military members and civilians overseas can vote through the Monday before an election; early voting for all other residents ends on the preceding Friday. Though Republican lawmakers claim they changed the rules to prevent voter fraud, it’s not hard to see another potential motivation: Military and overseas voters skew Republican. Under the old early voting rules, Democrats were very effective at getting black, Hispanic, and less-well-off citizens—who’ve historically been less likely to show up on Election Day—to cast early ballots. Many black churches take congregants to vote after services on the Sunday before Election Day, an effort known as “Souls to the Polls.” The new Ohio rules put an end to that.
The Obama campaign named as defendants in its suit Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and Secretary of State Jon Husted, both Republicans. The Ohio officials, in turn, have filed legal papers defending the state law on the grounds that it has long been permissible to treat military voters differently. “The idea that there is something inappropriate here is absurd,” Husted says. “We have very, very expansive voting,” adds DeWine.
Ohio expanded early voting after Election Day delays in 2004 caused by broken equipment and other problems. The Obama campaign has said about 30 percent of Ohio voters went to the polls early in 2008, when the state allowed early voting until the Monday before Election Day. This fall, all Ohio registered voters will have at least 35 days to cast ballots before Election Day, Husted points out. He adds that the legislature cut early voting short this year to give local election boards several more days to synchronize early balloting records with those at 9,800 polling places to prevent people from voting twice.
In Florida, where early voting begins 10 days before an election, the Republican-controlled legislature also has eliminated early voting on the Sunday before Election Day, bringing allegations from Democrats that the GOP is trying to suppress the Democratic vote. “It’s crazy to require everybody to cram voting into one day,” says Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. There’s no doubt that early votes helped Obama win the state four years ago: By Election Day in 2008, 54 percent of black voters in Florida had already cast their ballots.