No matter how much we all remind ourselves that early voting has revolutionized politics in some parts of the country, it's easy to get caught up in the traditional patterns of pre-election activity, climaxing on Election Day.
But as we head into the busiest primary day of this cycle, June 8, it's important to remember that in some states Election Day has already begun to unfold--notably in California and Nevada.
Early voting--in-person or by mail, "no-excuse" or requiring an affadavit of inability to vote on Election Day--is entirely within the purview of the states, and the variations in law and practice are significant. On one end of the spectrum you find Alabama, which has no in-person early voting and requires that absentee ballots be accompanied by an affadavit and the signature of a notary or two witnesses. In 2008, only 4% of Alabama ballots were cast this way, which is why you heard nothing about early voting leading into the June 1 primary. On the other extreme is Oregon with its 100% mail-in ballot system.
The trend in recent years has been away from the Alabama model and towards Oregon's, though some states prefer early in-person voting to any sort of mail-in system.
One June 8 primary state, California, has adopted a system that allows individual voters to permanently register for an Oregon-style mail ballot, which is then automatically sent out within a few weeks of the election. As of 2009, 5.5 million--or about a third--of the state's 17 million registered voters were permanently signed up for voting by mail. And in 2008, a total of 5.9 million votes were cast by mail (including both permanent registrants and those requesting mail ballots for the individual election), or 41% of all votes. Since by-mail voters seem to be more likely to vote than those using the traditional system, the percentage could go even higher on June 8. Since the only requirement for mail voting is receipt by Election Day, it's difficult to estimate when ballots are actually cast, though there is some evidence this year that many voters are holding their ballots until the last minute.
Another June 8 primary state, Nevada, has gone heavily towards in-person early voting, with 58% of 2008 presidential ballots being cast in that manner. This year the "window" for early in-person voting in the primary ran from May 22 to today, June 4. And given estimates that early voting is heavier than in the 2008 primaries, it's entirely possible that over half the ultimate vote has already been cast in the competitive GOP gubernatorial and Senate primaries.
A third June 8 primary state, Iowa, illustrates a third variation on early voting by offering broad opportunities for in-person absentee voting beginning 40 days before every election. 36% of the 2008 general election votes were cast via absentee ballots in person or by mail.
Still another state, South Carolina, allows by-mail or in-person absentee voting, though not without an "excuse," but in practice locations for this form of early voting are often limited. (This is also the situation in Virginia, which has a couple of hot congressional primaries next Tuesday). 17% of SC's 2008 presidential votes were cast by absentee ballot. The state legislature is currently deadlocked over legislation that would match Democratic-supported efforts to expand early voting with Republican demands for photo ID. But by and large, most Palmetto State voters will be exposed to the full insanity of this primary season before making up their minds.
In every state, campaigns know the rules and how to exploit them. But the important thing to keep in mind on June 8 is that the results are not always a snapshot of Election Day public opinion, but are increasingly a compilation of decisions made over an extended period of time.