Overlooked in the hullabaloo over states' scrambling to be first in line to choose nominees for the White House is the impact the compressed calendar will have on early and absentee voting.
Voters in California, Arizona and New Jersey could be casting ballots to choose nominees for the White House barely a week after most Americans are sweeping the confetti from 2008 New Year's celebrations.
"People think [states] are just moving the primary up. No. They are moving their entire election processes up," Donna Brazile, chair of the Democratic National Committee's Voting Rights Institute
and formerly Vice President Al Gore's campaign manager, told Stateline.org
. That means some states will have to have their ballots printed and ready to mail as early as December, she said.
California's election officials expect to start mailing ballots on Dec. 27 to voters who requested them, while New Jersey and Tennessee are among states planning to do the same in within the first week of January before their Feb. 5 presidential primaries. Early in-person voting begins Jan. 10 in Arizona. Absentee ballots for military personnel are mailed weeks ahead of those dates.
Early voting and absentee voting laws vary widely, but Paul Gronke, director of the Early Voting Information Center
at Oregon's Reed College, said that in recent years, states have made it easier for voters to cast ballots early by mail or in person without requiring an excuse.
Twenty-nine states, for example, allow "no-excuse" absentee voting by mail and 31 allow voters to cast their ballots in person before Election Day without requiring any reason for doing so, according to electionline.org
, an nonpartisan Web site that provides news and analysis on election reform. ( Stateline.org
are both funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts
Gronke estimates that 36 million voters will cast their ballots early in the next presidential election, or 30 percent of the 120 million Americans expected to vote in 2008. That's up from the 21 million voters who voted early in the last presidential election, he said .
But while that day likely will determine the nominees, the rush to be first has launched several states into a competition that would trigger the earliest early voting ever.
Florida set off the jostling for earlier dates by jumping ahead in the pecking order of states choosing presidential nominees and settling on Jan. 29, but there appears to be little chance the calendar shuffling will end any time soon.
Wyoming Republicans got into the mix late August by pegging Jan. 5 as their nominating date, and Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) this month signed a law pushing back the state primary to Jan. 15.
Iowa and New Hampshire vow to fiercely defend their traditions of holding the country's first presidential caucus and primary respectively. Both are widely expected to move up their nominating dates (currently Jan. 14 for Iowa's caucus and Jan. 22 for New Hampshire primary).
"California Republicans are already gearing up for the election and expect to be working through Thanksgiving and Christmas because of the early primary," said Hector Barajas, spokesman for the state GOP party.
States are defying the national Democratic and Republican parties, which promise to penalize any state that violates party rules. Neither party wants states scheduling contests before Feb. 5, although the Democrats have carved out Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina as the exceptions. Democrats stand to lose all their delegates and Republicans up to 90 percent of the delegates to the national conventions next summer for running afoul of party rules.
Democratic presidential candidates have agreed not to campaign in any state that breaks DNC rules by scheduling their nominating dates in January, including Florida and Michigan.
Bob Mulholland, campaign advisor for California Democratic Party
, expects voters who request early ballots in the Golden State to wait a few days to see what happens in Iowa and New Hampshire before making their decision. "There's nothing like winning in Iowa or New Hampshire to crush everything else," he said.
Voters in New Jersey will have barely recovered from this year's Nov. 6 Statehouse elections before they can start receiving presidential primary ballots mailed out Jan. 7. Louisiana voters, who elect a new governor and Statehouse members this fall, will start receiving absentee ballots Jan. 18.
Gronke of the Early Voting Information Center said early voters tend to be committed party loyalists who vote regularly. "Some could cast their votes now," he said. The bigger question is how voters who don't align themselves with either political party will act because party primaries are typically restricted to party members, he said.