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Early Voting Grows In Popularity Across Country


So six weeks to go before Election Day, but in-person early voting has already started in a handful of states. Many others will begin soon, and more and more of us are choosing to vote early. In Colorado, for example, where we just heard from Ari Shapiro, nearly 80 percent of votes were cast early in the 2008 presidential election.

Michael McDonald tracks these trends with the U.S. Elections Project at George Mason University and he joins me now. Welcome to the program.

MICHAEL MCDONALD: Oh, thank you for having me.

BLOCK: And when you look at Colorado, would you say it's an outlier? Are there other states that have such a high percentage of early voters?

MCDONALD: Well, Colorado offers a particular form of early voting that's proven to be very popular in Western states and that's a combination of allowing people to request a mail ballot for any reason whatsoever and also allowing people to permanently sign up to receive that mail ballot so they just - they sign up once and they continually receive that mail ballot in future elections.

And in states that have adopted this, Washington being another important state out in the West, what we've seen is an increase in early voting from election to election as more and more people choose that option to receive the ballot by mail. And so in Washington now, they essentially run their elections entirely by mail because so many people signed up for that ballot.

And in Colorado, as you said, 80 percent in 2008. We're looking as upwards to maybe 85 percent of the ballots will be cast prior to Election Day in 2012.

BLOCK: And Oregon, another state, right, that's gone to a procedure of voting by mail only, no polling places.

MCDONALD: Right. Oregon was actually the first state to run a statewide mail ballot election. And they were also the first state to permanently adopt that as their form of voting. Now, as I said, Washington also does this. Colorado is inching up to also being an all-mail ballot state. And then there are some other local jurisdictions out in the West that also run all-mail ballots elections, say, in states like California.

So it's really interesting that you see this dynamic of mail balloting out in the West. But there are some states that also allow these options on the East Coast, but the preferred method for early voting on the East, tendency there is that on people will vote in-person early at special polling locations. That seems to be more of an East Coast phenomenon than a West Coast phenomenon.

BLOCK: Well, the numbers show a steady rise of early voting. It amounted to 15 percent of votes cast in 2000, 20 percent in 2004, 30 percent in 2008. What are the projections for 2012?

MCDONALD: Well, we've seen the steady increase. And it's a little bit early to tell exactly where we're going to be this election cycle. And so, this is just my impression at this point. But my impression is that around 35 percent of the ballots will be cast prior to Election Day. Part of that is because voters love this method of voting. And so, you tend to see, once you open up the spigot of early voting within a state, more and more people start flowing through the election in that way. So part of it is enthusiasm and an interest in voting that way.

Another part of the puzzle is that the Romney campaign, unlike the McCain campaign in 2008, is going to invest heavily and already has invested heavily during the primary season in early voting mobilization. So we expect then that with the Obama campaign doing similar things they did in 2008, with Romney now doing similar things that Obama did in 2008, and general interest among voters, we're going to see another rise of early voting in 2012.

BLOCK: Who is voting early? What are the demographics of these early voters?

MCDONALD: That's a really excellent question. In 2008, more Democrats voted than Republicans in that election. We have multiple sources of information that can confirm that. But that was an aberrant election. Usually in most elections what you see is more Republicans voting early than Democrats. So what really drives early voting in this day and age, looking at 2012, is interest by the voters and the capacity for the campaigns to mobilize their supporters.

BLOCK: The endpoint of early voting has also become a contentious issue. We've seen lawsuits brought in Florida and Ohio because they decided to end early voting before Election Day. What's that about?

MCDONALD: Well, there's good evidence to suggest that, yes, indeed, if in-person early voting during that one weekend prior to the election, more Democrats do indeed vote by that method than by other methods. And so, it seemed to be narrowly targeted at Democrats. Now, there has been a federal court that overturned the Ohio law. So, as of now - although it's being appealed - early voting will happen the weekend prior to the election in Ohio.

In Florida, we're still awaiting word on a federal lawsuit as to whether or not we're going to see early voting restored in Florida. My sense is, you know, if I'm going to forecast what's going to happen there is that the court will likely allow the ban to remain in place. And we will not see election - early voting the weekend prior to the election.

BLOCK: Professor McDonald, thank you so much.

MCDONALD: Thank you.

BLOCK: Michael McDonald directs the U.S. Elections Project at George Mason University.



This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.