Many U.S. voters, conditioned by history and custom, still view Election Day as their sole chance to cast a ballot. That's not been the case for years, and it is certainly not true when it comes to the upcoming November elections. Voting for president and other offices on the Nov. 6 ballot is well under way in several locales.
North Carolina has been accepting absentee ballots by mail since the first week of September. Hawaii followed suit shortly thereafter. In-person early voting starts today in Idaho and South Dakota. By the end of the month, more than half the states will have started either in-person or absentee voting. Georgia opens early voting on Oct. 15 followed two days later by Tennessee.
Clearly, early voting is popular - increasingly so - with voters. Candidates ignore the bloc at their own peril.
Indeed, early and absentee voters have become a formidable force in electoral politics. They have become an audience assiduously courted by candidates and with good reason. In some states -- Florida, Nevada and Colorado, for example -- early voters accounted for more than half the ballots cast. It seems likely that the number of early voters will continue to rise in most if not all states.
Voters obviously appreciate the opportunity to vote at a time and day of their choosing. Candidates covet early voters for a couple of reasons. First, early voters are far more partisan than those who wait to cast a ballot. That's a plus for any candidate seeking to amass votes.
Second, in a day and an age where tracking votes and voters has become a science, once an early vote is cast, political campaigns know they can turn their focus to attracting undecided voters. The latter is especially important in places where relatively small number of undecided voters could hold the key to victory.
The introduction and continued shift to early voting has not come without problems, Democrats and Republicans, in fact, continue to battle in various courts over plans that one side or the other believes limits or expands voting prior to Election Day. Though not directly related to early voting, but likely inspired by it, legal challenges to new laws that limit voter registration and require voters to show IDs are under way as well.
Democrats say the new legislation, a product of GOP-controlled legislatures across the country, is aimed at suppressing voters -- early and otherwise -- who favor their candidates. Republicans say that is not true. The laws, they argue, are designed to prevent voter fraud, though supporters of the restrictive rules are hard-pressed to cite examples of such activity.
Early voting likely will continue to gain popularity. Political scientists point out that the rate of increase has been 50 percent in every presidential election since 2000. There's nothing to suggest that trend will end. It seems Election Day is now that in name only. In truth, the election has started.