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Early Voting Draws More Interest from Parties

Adjusting to the political reality that their races may be well on their way to being decided before Election Day, Congressional candidates across the nation are chasing absentee and early voters with an unprecedented intensity.

“Election Day is not necessarily when the election will be won and lost. We know that. We’re going full speed now,” explained Kena Hudson, communications director for Democratic House candidate Richard Romero, who is challenging incumbent Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) for the second time.

In 2002 things looked good for Romero on Election Day, as he appeared to have defeated the incumbent among both early and Election Day voters.

But by the time absentee ballots were counted the following day, Wilson had secured a 10-point victory over the state Senator and taught her opponent a valuable lesson about the importance of getting out of the starting gate early.

This time around, Romero and his supporters aren’t leaving anything to chance — a message that resonated heavily last week at a star-studded political rally in Albuquerque, where Democratic presidential contender John Kerry, former presidential contender Wesley Clark and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson repeatedly encouraged the crowd of 10,000 to “go out and get the absentee vote,” according to those who attended the vent.

“One of the biggest things is awareness,” said Hudson. “Making sure that the campaign is rolling a lot. Going full speed.”

In New Mexico, voters can start casting their ballots as early as Oct. 5. Like many Southern and Western states, New Mexico allows both “no excuse” absentee voting — meaning applicants don’t have to offer any reason to vote by absentee ballot — with ballots becoming available 40 days prior to Election Day, as well as early voting, beginning on the third Saturday before the election.

As many states have eased their absentee voting rules over the past decade or so the percentage of voters casting their ballot before Election Day has skyrocketed. Currently, 24 states allow “no excuse” absentee voting, 10 states allow early voting, while six states have Election Day registration. Oregon conducts all balloting by mail.

This year, between 15 percent and 20 percent of the electorate is expected to cast their votes before Nov. 2 — but political experts seem to have different takes on the overall impact on voter turnout.

“I think that generally speaking, people think of [early and absentee voting] as a good thing,” remarked Yale University political science professor Don Green, who has done extensive research on voter turnout. “It’s like taking Vitamin C for a cold. It doesn’t necessarily make a lot of difference, but it couldn’t hurt.”

Green said that statistically speaking, early voting options tend to raise turnout “in the order of between 2 and 5 percentage points.”

In a recent report, Curtis Gans, director of the nonpartisan Center for the Study of the American Electorate, makes the case that no- excuse absentee voting and early voting actually hurts voter turnout and poses “risks to the health of the American political system.”

Gans’ argument acknowledges that while “no-excuse absentee states” might have registered increases in voter turnout, those increases tend to be smaller than the increases in states without early voting alternatives.

For instance, in 2000 turnout in states with early voting alternatives increased by 2.1 percentages points from 1996, while in states without those provisions turnout jumped by 3.1 percent.

Overall, Gans’ study stated that from 1988 to 2000, the states with no-excuse absentee voting recorded a 0.4 percent drop in turnout, compared to a 1.6 percent increase in those states that do not provide such an option.

Whatever the case, early and absentee voting has had an undeniable impact on the nature of campaigning.

“With respect to Congressional races, I would say that in some cases what they do is reverse the ordinary cadence of an electoral competition,” said Green, who explained that candidates have to be ready weeks in advance of the actual Election Day.

Political operatives on both sides of the aisle insist they are rising to the occasion.

“Every single one of our Senate battleground seats has an early voting program,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Press Secretary Cara Morris. “It certainly seems to be the norm now in campaign strategy. It’s ingrained into the way that a campaign is run, especially the field program.”

In Nevada, a state that has allowed no-excuse absentee voting since 1991 and has allowed early voting in person since 1994, Senate Democrats have erected a particularly impressive field operation, according to some political observers.

While there is no intrinsic advantage for either party when it comes to early or absentee voting, Nevada political analyst Jon Ralston said he believes Democrats have trumped the competition.

“This year Democrats are better organized than Republicans, more because [Sen.] Harry Reid [D] thought he would have the race of his life with Jim Gibbons [R],” Ralston said. “The Republican Party is essentially a shell now and doesn’t have any real ability to get grassroots people out in the field.”

Kathie Finger, a Republican political consultant in Colorado, said the new reality of early voting requires getting volunteers organized sooner and ensuring that direct-mail pieces hit a voter’s mailbox at the same time their ballot does.

“We try to get those early voting people voted and in the bank,” Finger said.

“Our early voting starts around Oct 10. That week, we get everybody signed up to get their absentee [ballots] or for early voting. By that time, we’ve identified voters. There’s that really big push so as soon as people get those ballots there’s a piece of mail that will hit as soon as the ballot hits.”

About a week and a half later, the focus moves to the undecided voters who have applied for an early voting application form, but are still watching and waiting.

“Your people keep calling them and telling them to get it in. There are even programs where we can track who has turned in their ballot. If those ballots haven’t been turned in, they get a phone call saying, ‘Have you turned in your ballot?’” Finger noted. “It gets to be that sophisticated.”

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Greg Speed said people can be sure that the DCCC has a strategy in place to tackle the challenges of early voting.

“It is something we’re very cognizant of,” said Speed. “What it does is stretch out the time that it’s imperative to be communicating with voters. In some places it can translate into a great cost. It means you can’t just focus on Election Day in some of these states, you need to be communicating at an earlier time when a significant portion of the electorate is voting or making up their mind.”

The National Republican Congressional Committee, meanwhile, has dedicated a portion of its Internet site to helping folks vote early, or by mail. The Web page quotes NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) extolling the virtues of increased voting options.

“In today’s hectic world one thing that has become easier is voting,” Reynolds is quoted as saying.

Other independent but conservative-leaning groups such as the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Industry Political Action Committee, which focuses on helping elect business-minded candidates to Congress, are also pitching in to try to help drive early voting by offering online resources to their members to help people register to vote early or in absentia.

BIPAC President Greg Casey believes the impact of early voting will be “significant.”

“Candidates who wait until the last week to make their case will miss their mark with large segments of the population,” said Casey. “People are paying more attention earlier and more will vote earlier.”