116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
DES MOINES - The general election starts in less than three weeks in Iowa.
Early voting begins Sept. 27, and campaigns already are working to get people to cast ballots before Election Day.
Few states allow voting in-person or by mail so early, and the chance to lock in votes in a battleground state is one reason presidential candidates have been visiting Iowa so frequently.
President Barack Obama made a point of reminding Iowans last weekend when he visited suburban Des Moines that they don't have to wait until Nov. 6 to vote.
“You can be among the very first to vote in this election, starting Sept. 27,” he said.
Michael McDonald, a government and politics professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., said early voting allows campaigns to focus their efforts in a precise way that isn't possible with voters who cast a ballot on Election Day.
It's common practice for campaigns to acquire data from state election officials on voters who have requested absentee ballots. The campaigns know those who have ballots and those who have returned them. Campaign volunteers focus telephone calls on voters who haven't returned their ballots and encourage them to do so. Once ballots are submitted to election officials, campaigns can turn to recruiting others.
“Those who've made up their minds get scratched off the list and the focus can turn to those who are really hard to reach and persuade,” said McDonald, who studies voter turnout and ballot issues.
Only three other states allow voters to cast ballots in person earlier than Iowa. In Idaho and South Dakota, early voting begins Sept. 21 and Vermont is Sept. 22. Wyoming also begins Sept. 27.
Another 26 states allow in-person early voting beginning in October, including Nebraska on Oct. 1.
Many states also begin accepting absentee ballots by mail in September, with North Carolina the earliest at Sept. 6.
In 2004, about 20 percent of voters cast early ballots nationally. In 2008, Barack Obama's campaign worked hard to encourage supporters to vote early and their efforts helped push early voting to a modern election high of 30 percent, McDonald said.
McDonald said campaign volunteers for Republican candidate Mitt Romney and Obama will again recruit heavily this fall to get their voters to cast ballots early. He expects the efforts boost the early voting total to 35 percent or perhaps more this election.
In the 2008 general election in Iowa, about 34 percent of votes were absentee ballots cast largely by early voters. Democrats typically focus more on early voting, and in 2008 registered Democrats cast 250,104 absentee ballots, compared to 156,986 by Republicans and 138,328 by independents.
The Iowa Secretary of State's office said so far this year 65,643 Democrats have requested early ballots, while 7,234 Republicans requested them. About 17,783 independent or other party voters have sought absentee ballots.
During recent Obama visits, campaign staffers offered absentee ballot request forms to those attending the rallies. At college campuses there's a big push to get first-time voters registered and to encourage them to vote early, said Erin Seidler, the Obama campaign spokeswoman in Iowa.
“Early voting is a big part of our get-out-the-vote operation,” she said. “We certainly think that this is a tool. You never know what might happen on Election Day and we want to make sure folks in Iowa know that it is easy to vote early and it's a good option when we have so much on our plates.”
Republicans said they are improving their efforts and believe they'll close the early-voting gap with Democrats.
At a recent Iowa stop by GOP vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan, campaign workers wore shirts that read “Ask Me How To Vote Early.”
“We're doing lots of outreach to try to get people to vote early and vote absentee,” said Megan Stiles, spokeswoman for the Republican Party of Iowa. “We signed up a lot of people at the state fair to vote absentee, so we're hitting all the big events.”
Iowa residents may vote early by requesting an absentee ballot by mail from their county auditor's office. The ballot is delivered to their home, where they fill it out and return it by mail. Voters also have the option of voting in person at the auditor's office or a designated satellite location in their county.
Cindy Pollard, a Democrat from Newton, has been an early voter for years and goes to the county courthouse on the first day in-person voting is allowed. It's so important to Pollard that she wants to ensure nothing could happen to prevent her from casting a ballot.
“I'm a nurse and I see it all the time, somebody gets sick in the family and you have to go out of state or you could break your ankle,” she said.
As a volunteer who helps get voters registered and signed up for absentee ballots, she encourages others for the same reasons to vote early. She said it's getting easier to convince people to fill out an application for an absentee ballot so they can vote early.
“All we do is just ask them if they support Obama and if they say yes, we talk them into doing it right there,” she said.