Elections 2012: Who Wins With Early Voting?

Mark Trahant
10/15/12

Does early voting really favor one candidate over another?

Last week I reported an Ohio poll from Think Progress that said early voters were far more inclined to favor President Barack Obama’s re-election over Republican challenger Mitt Romney. I wrote: One recent poll showed that 60 percent of Obama voters had already cast ballots, compared to 39 percent for Romney.

And clearly early voting was one reason that Obama carried Ohio four years ago. It turned out to be a significant advantage.

But not all early voting is equal.

Rich Beeson, writing a blog post for the Romney campaign website, says many of the early voting Democrats are “high propensity voters who would almost certainly be voting on Election Day – meaning that President Obama is cannibalizing his turnout on November 6th.”

He said the aim of the Romney campaign is “focused on low propensity voters, which means his Election Day turnout will not be negatively impacted by the early vote program.”

Beeson said Romney will “over-perform” among those who will vote before Election Day. “In swing states that have party registration, ballots cast belonging to registered Democrats only hold a 6 percent margin over those cast by registered Republicans,” he wrote. “Furthermore, of the approximate 6.7 million voters in those states who have requested ballots, but have yet to return them, Republicans narrowly edge Democrats.”

Another Republican strategy memo says Republicans are both aggressive and ahead in early voting.

However Bloomberg News is reporting that early voting in Florida is a potential problem for Romney because the ratio of Republican versus Democrats who’ve already voted is more even than in recent cycles.

“It’s not good news for Republicans,” Brad Gomez, told Bloomberg. Gomez is a political science professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee, who studies voter turnout. “Republicans would prefer their advantage they’ve seen in past years.”

The Obama campaign said that registered Democrats are requesting and casting more ballots in Iowa, Ohio, Florida and Nevada.

One difference between early voting is in person or by mail. “There are some partisan patterns to early voting; Democrats tend to use early in-person voting more frequently and Republicans tend to vote by mail,” writes Paul Gronke for the Early Voting Information Center. “My own belief is that these patterns have their roots in longstanding mobilization strategies and are not inherent to the mode of balloting. The GOP built up direct mail lists in the last 1970s, for instance, and began to encourage absentee voting in the 80s. Democrats came to the early voting game later, and the states they focused on happened to have a larger proportion of early in-person voters.”

However, Gronke, a professor who studies early voting from Reed College in Oregon, concludes, “focusing on partisan advantage is not the right way to think about early voting. It doesn’t stop virtually every reporter from asking!”

Early voting does favor the campaign that’s the most organized and methodical about identifying and turning out its voters. Campaigns can chart voters most likely to support them and measure their turnout (or, conversely, the lack of turnout by opponents).

Michael McDonald of the United States Election Project says early voting, both mail and in person, is on track to exceed that from four years ago. More than 800,000 people have already voted.

Indian country can gain significantly from early voting. One reason is that it reduces the problem of transportation: Voters have weeks to get to the polls instead of hours.

This is why several tribes in Montana filed suit last week to increase early voting opportunities in that state. So far only one tribe, the Blackfeet, have access to early voting.

A second advantage – one that has never been deployed – is that tribes could match their tribal enrollment data with actual voter lists. Then a tribe could build a list of who could vote and check off voters after they did so. This could increase participation substantially. Even, in theory, turnout a perfect 100 percent of eligible members.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: marktrahant@thecedarsgroup.org.

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