Election Day is still a month away, but more than half the country has already either sent out absentee ballots or begun voting.
“We’re looking at mid-to-high 20 percent of the electorate voting early, but slightly down from over 30 percent that we saw in the last presidential election,” said Michael McDonald, professor of Political Science at the University of Florida, who tracks turnout.
As of Oct. 7, 11 states have opened their doors to early in-person voting with Indiana and Ohio beginning today. Forty-two states have already sent out their early absentee ballots.
Early voting has been on the rise over the last three decades, according to the Census Bureau. Only 4 percent of voters used early voting in 1974, compared to the 30 percent who took advantage of it in 2008.
In 33 states, eligible voters may cast ballots in person at designated voting times before Election Day.
“Once a state adopts more expansive early voting,” McDonald said, “you see more people taking advantage of that.”
The majority of states have loosened early voting rules, allowing voters to request absentee ballots without an excuse. But several have tightened rules, leaving Democrats crying foul. Politicians on the left have accused Republican-led state legislatures of trying to limit early voting as an attempt to help their candidates at the polls.
Oregon is all vote by mail, and Washington and Colorado recently switched to mostly all-mail ballots, but still allow some early in-person voting.
In 2012, 77 percent of Colorado voters and 60 percent of Washington state voters cast their votes early, much higher than the national average.
The Supreme Court voted 5-4 on Sept. 29 to uphold a plan by the Republican-controlled Ohio legislature to reduce the number of early voting days in Ohio from 35 to 28. The new rules limit night and weekend early voting hours and remove the ‘golden week’ when voters can register and vote at the same time.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP oppose these restrictions, arguing that they discourage minority voters, who tend to vote early more often, according to Census data.
A federal appeals court decided Wednesday that North Carolina officials must restore two provisions affecting ballot access that the mostly Republican legislature had passed earlier this year.
The North Carolina law would have eliminated same-day registration at the polls during the entire early voting period, a feature unique to the state. That restriction would have likely reduced turnout, McDonald said.
“There were a lot of people that used that,” McDonald noted, “tens of thousands were using same-day registration.”
While some states are attempting to scale-back early voting, that’s not the case everywhere.
“Remember, Colorado expanded early voting,” McDonald said. “They moved to all-mail ballot elections, and Minnesota has no-excuse absentee voting, and some states are moving in the opposite direction from restricting voting.”
Earlier this year, Massachusetts passed a bill that expands early voting in the state and allows residents to vote by mail by 2016. Connecticut voters will also consider a ballot measure next month to amend the state constitution to allow early voting. Minnesota, Massachusetts and Connecticut are all states that have voted reliably Democratic.
The increased availability of mail ballots is making campaigns shift focus, emphasizing getting their supporters to utilize those ballots in hotly contested races.
“In Iowa, the Republican requests for mail ballots are up, but so are the Democrats’,” McDonald said. “If the trend continues, we’ll have a record for people voting by mail in a midterm election. As we get closer to Election Day, these numbers will only increase.”
Democrats are trying to rally key groups of their supporters who don’t typically vote in midterm elections, in particular minorities and unmarried women.
In North Carolina, Republicans have traditionally used mail-in ballots more often than Democrats, McDonald said. But, this year in this key Senate race, Democrats are ahead in requests.
“We can see in those statistics that they are getting ballot requests from people who didn’t vote in the 2010 election,” McDonald said.
But mail voting has risks. According to the US Election Assistance Commission, about 200,000 mail votes had to be voided in each of the 2010 and 2012 elections, because they were filled out improperly.
Mail ballots are an easy way for voters to disenfranchise themselves, said McDonald.
“Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t follow the instructions,” he said. “That includes putting just one ballot inside the special envelope.”