The first people to vote in this year’s midterm elections have already returned their ballots to state elections officials in North Carolina, seven weeks before much of the rest of the country gets to weigh in.
Those voters — 181 of whom have voted so far, according to the state Board of Elections — are part of an increasing number of Americans who cast their ballots before Election Day.
This year, more than 40 percent of all voters are likely to take advantage of mail-in, absentee or early voting options.
“There’s been this revolution in the use of mailed-out ballots in the last 20 years, and people like us are just hoping it accelerates,” said Phil Keisling, a former Oregon secretary of state who now directs the Center for Public Service at the Mark Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University.
Absentee ballots have already gone out in four states — North Carolina, Wisconsin, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. On Friday, four more states will drop absentee ballots in the mail. Fifteen more states follow on Saturday and another four by the end of the month. The remaining 23 states will issue their absentee ballots in October.
Voters in Minnesota will be the first ones able to cast their votes early in person, when early vote centers open around the state on Friday. Four more states open early voting locations Saturday, and another three kick off in-person voting next week.
Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia offer some form of early in-person voting, usually at county offices or satellite locations. Sixteen of those states begin early voting on or after Oct. 20.
The proliferation of early voting has changed the shape of modern political campaigns, which once aimed to reveal late October surprises targeting their opponents. Now, those campaigns must offer their closing arguments weeks before the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November — and they must remain at their peak for far longer than in the past.
“You now have to have the closing intensity level last for three weeks instead of one four-day weekend,” said David Carney, a Republican strategist who has worked extensively in Texas, where early voting is on the rise.
More than 57 million Americans voted before Election Day in the 2016 presidential election, or almost 42 percent of the 136.7 million people who showed up to vote, according to the federal Election Assistance Commission. That’s about double the number of voters who cast their ballots early in 2004.
The increase is being led by the three states — Colorado, Washington and Oregon — that now conduct their elections entirely by mail. Voters who receive their ballots in the mail weeks before Election Day can either mail those ballots back to election officials or return them to county or local drop boxes.
Some counties in states like California, Utah and North Dakota conduct their elections entirely by mail as well.
Other states, like Arizona, Hawaii and Montana, have made it easy to sign up for ongoing absentee ballots. And states like Nevada, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas have robust early voting programs, in which voters can show up any time it is convenient for them within a special pre-election window to cast their ballots.
In Arizona, three-quarters of voters cast a ballot early in 2016. More than two-thirds of all voters cast a ballot before Election Day in Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, Tennessee and Utah.
Strategists who run campaigns in states where early voting is gaining steam say there are benefits and drawbacks to the new system.
On one hand, campaigns that spend millions of dollars identifying voters can use updated results to chase ballots, tracking down those most likely to support them to make sure their ballots are turned in. Once those beleaguered voters turn in their ballots, the incessant phone calls and door knocks will stop.
“You have far more ability to control the electorate, where if everyone votes on Election Day it’s more of a crapshoot,” said Mike Noble, a Republican strategist in Arizona. “As you’re updating your lists, you’re narrowing your universe” of potential voters.
On the other hand, the prolonged period of early voting means campaigns have to spread limited resources out over longer periods of time. Once voters cast their ballots, they cannot make changes; that means the potency of a late, campaign-ending attack fades as Election Day nears and the voting pool shrinks.
“You can’t sit on your hands and overwhelm an opponent with a late blitz,” said Dan Newman, a Democratic strategist in California. “We have Election Month in California now, and by Election Day a majority of voters have actually already voted.”
How voters actually prefer to cast their ballots varies widely by state, adding another layer of complexity to a campaign’s calculations.
In states like Nevada and North Carolina, African-American and Hispanic voters tend to cast ballots in person, while older white voters prefer to vote by mail. In California, voters in the Los Angeles area are more likely to vote on Election Day, while those in San Francisco tend to mail their ballots in early.
“Once signs go up, ‘Vote Here,’ and ballots start landing on kitchen counters, folks are making up their minds,” said Mike Slanker, the Nevada-based chief strategist for Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerNevada becomes early Senate battleground Nevada governor Sisolak injured in car accident, released from hospital Democrats brace for tough election year in Nevada MORE (R-Nev.). “You have to time your campaign to be ahead by early voting.”
Early voting is most often used by older voters, who are the most likely to vote anyway. But proponents of all-mail elections like those in Washington, Oregon and Colorado say those systems are most likely to improve turnout among those least likely to show up on Election Day.
Keisling, the former secretary of state, also said those tasked with administering elections tend to appreciate early voting. Gathering ballots at one central location helps election officials apply the same standard to every ballot, rather than relying on hundreds or thousands of election judges in precincts across a state.
“What you’re able to do is to enforce uniform standards at a central location for processing ballots,” Keisling said. “From a county election administration procedure [perspective], when people use this more and more, they get excited about it.”