An unprecedented shift that makes it easier for voters in 30 states to cast their ballots early means that the first votes of the 2004 election will be in the ballot box before the first barbs of the presidential debate are even exchanged.
Gone are the days of citizens across the country converging on polling places in an Election Day ritual. Three-fourths of Americans now live in states that are allowing widespread early voting, meaning late-breaking campaign issues could have less impact on the outcome of races this year than in any previous election.
"This is the first election in history where the majority the overwhelming majority, almost 75 percent of voters will be able to vote early," said Brian Lunde, founder of HelpingAmericans Vote, a company that helps businesses educate employees about voting rules.
"Election Day has been redefined," Lunde said. "It's now just the last day to vote. It's not the only day."
Already under way in a few states, early voting will be in full swing by next week a fact that most likely has been on the minds of the Bush and Kerry campaigns as they prepare for the first presidential debate on Sept. 30.
Election experts predict that as much as 30 percent of the vote this year could be cast before Nov. 2 double the almost 15 percent of votes cast before Election Day 2000.
The change stems from many states adopting "no excuse" early-voting policies, which usually take one of two forms: mail-in absentee ballots or in-person polling sites opened weeks before Election Day. Before this election, officials usually allowed people to vote early only if they claimed to be unable to make it to the polls on Election Day, for example, because they had to be out of town.
Fueled primarily by elections officials' desires to increase voter turnout, the number of states allowing any voter to cast a ballot either by mail or in person prior to Election Day has nearly tripled since 2000. In all, 30 states are offering voters a "no excuse" early-voting option this election cycle, compared to just 11 eight years ago. Ten more states are placing only minimal restrictions on early voting.
Early voting already has begun in several states expected to be hotly contested presidential battlegrounds, including Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Nevada and West Virginia, where absentee and early balloting restrictions have been lessened.
Oregon for the second time is conducting its presidential balloting without ever opening the polls. Oregon, whose seven electoral votes some pundits suggest could be up for grabs even though Kerry consistently has been ahead in polls, is the only state that is relying entirely on mail-in ballots. The state went to a full mail-in system in 2000 in an effort to increase voter turnout. Almost 80 percent of the Beaver State's registered voters cast ballots in the 2000 election,
In other states, easier access to poll sites is the method of choice for increasing voter turnout in 2004. In Colorado, for example, elections officials plan to set up poll sites in grocery stores, so residents can vote while shopping for dinner.
Early voting is being touted as a get-out-the-vote tool because it provides flexibility to people with busy lifestyles who otherwise might skip voting rather than wait in long lines on Election Day.
Absentee ballots are being promoted as more secure by opponents of electronic touch-screen voting machines because the mail-in ballots are on paper, said Doug Chapin, director of Electionline.org, an election-information Web site funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which also funds Stateline.org.
But some purists argue that the concept of a single national Election Day adds to the notion of civic responsibility and worry that a cultural phenomenon will be lost if the trend continues.
The states that allow "no-excuse" early voting are Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, West Virginia and Wyoming.