Voting begins in battle for Senate
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Voting is officially underway in the midterm elections.

Election Day isn’t until Nov. 4, but a total of 36 states and the District of Columbia allow some form of early voting in person or by mail. Iowa's early voting began on Thursday, and North Carolina, Colorado, Arkansas, Ohio, Louisiana and Georgia will allow ballots to be cast in the coming weeks.

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Many of the states are key battlegrounds in the battle for control of the Senate, meaning candidates in tough races are under intense pressure to get out the vote.

"Between now and Election Day, the way we see it is every day is Election Day," said Iowa Democratic Party Communications Director Christina Freundlich. "Election Day is the last day to vote." 

Campaign officials in both parties are making efforts to run up the score in early voting in hopes of gaining an edge.

Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Reince Priebus is in Iowa campaigning for Joni Ernst in one of the nation's most competitive Senate races. Priebus hit the trail on Thursday to stump with Ernst and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R).

Democrats are fighting to hold the Iowa seat and are deploying First Lady Michelle ObamaMichelle ObamaObamas post last Christmas card as first family The Hill's 12:30 Report Depleted Dems look to Senate for 2020 nominee MORE — one of their most popular surrogates — to campaign next month for the Democratic candidate, Rep. Bruce BraleyBruce BraleyTrump: Ernst wanted 'more seasoning' before entertaining VP offer Criminal sentencing bill tests McConnell-Grassley relationship Trump's VP list shrinks MORE (D-Iowa).

Michael McDonald, an associate professor at the University of Florida who runs the U.S. Elections Project, said data so far indicates that participation in early voting is likely to surpass previous midterm years. 

In the 2010 elections, nearly 350,000 Iowans voted early. But with 145,000 ballots already requested in Iowa due to interest in the open House and Senate races, McDonald projected the number of early voters in the state this year will jump to around 400,000 to 450,000.

More than 18 million voters participated in early voting in 2012, a year that saw higher turnout due to the presidential election.

McDonald said the push from both parties for increased early voting is having an impact.

"It's actually starting to show up in statistics that it's having an effect," McDonald said. 

Both parties are spending money to get out the vote.

"By the time we're wrapped up, we're going to have hundreds of people that are out there knocking on doors," said Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann. He said the state GOP is spending more than $1 million on targeted mailings, paid volunteers and phone calls to boost early voting.

The RNC, meanwhile, has launched a Voter Pledge application on Facebook that allows people to announce their intention to vote and then challenge three friends to do the same.

Freundlich declined to provide a spending figure for the Iowa Democratic Party's early voting efforts, but said the party is investing heavily in its field operation. It held 15 "Stroll to the Poll" events on the first day of early voting alone.

Early voting has increased in recent years as a more convenient way of casting ballots than working in a trip to the polls on Election Day.

One consequences of the rise in early voting is that results often begin to trickle out well before the polls close the night of Nov. 4.

"We're going to get a sense of the races before Election Day," McDonald said.

The surge in early voting made it all the more critical for incumbent lawmakers return to the campaign trail as early as possible. Congressional leaders obliged them by keeping the House and Senate in session for only eight days in September.

After Iowa, the next major Senate battleground state to start early voting will be Georgia, which begins on Oct. 13. North Carolinians have already begun voting by mail, though official in-person early voting will commence Oct. 23. Similarly, Arkansas has started sending out ballots, but its official start date for early voting is Oct. 20. Louisiana's early voting will start on Oct. 21. 

Other states that don't allow early voting require a legitimate reason to vote via absentee ballot. Registered voters in those states without qualifying excuses must vote in person on Nov. 4.