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Election Day may be 12 days away, but more than 6 million Americans have already voted through early and absentee voting, including more than 200,000 people in the battleground state of Virginia. Voters in the commonwealth can cast absentee ballots in person, by mail or electronic submission, but they must have an accepted reason why they can't vote in person on November 6th.
Nationally, voting ahead of Election Day has been on the rise, and Michael McDonald, an assistant professor of government and politics at George Mason University, has been keeping track of it through the university's U.S. Elections Project. McDonald talks with WAMU's Morning Edition host Matt McCleskey about the early voting trends he's been seeing in Virginia and around the country. Here are some highlights:
On how early voting in Virginia this year compares to previous elections: "It's actually up quite a bit since 2008 when we had roughly 13 percent of all votes cast prior to the election," McDonald says. "We're going to exceed that rate in virginia in 2012."
What the data shows about who's voting early in Virginia: "We don't know as much in Virginia as we do in some of the other states. We don't have party registration in Virginia so we can only get some clues as to where people are voting from," McDonald says. "If we look at that, it looks very similar to 2008 where we see high levels of early voting in Northern Virginia, and in some Democratic areas. We know that in 2008 Obama won the early vote nationally and within Virginia, and so far, it looks a lot like 2008.
How early voting is shaking out nationally: "If we look across the board, the early vote doesn't look quite as good for Obama as it did in 2008," McDonald says. "If we look in North Carolina, we're seeing a little bit better performance for Romney than mccain in 2008, and it's the same in Iowa. North Carolina was a critical, razor-thin margin for Obama in 2008, so that actually matters in terms of who's going to win that states. Iowa was a state that obama won by 9 percentage points, so it looks as though the election is going to be closer nationally, and within some of these key battleground states."
How campaigns adjust to the rise in early voting: "What happens then is that early voting allows the campaigns to stretch their voter mobilization over weeks instead of doing it just around the election," McDonald says.
Whether more early voting means an increase in the total number of voters or just a smaller percentage of people turning out on Election Day: "I do believe it has a stimulative effect, particularly in the battleground states where we see the camps out there mobilizing people to vote," McDonald says. "And we know from a number of studies done over a decade that those contacts, even contacts you can have through social media, can stimulate people to vote. So, rationally then, it means if you're extending the mobilization period over weeks, it allows the campaigns to contact more people and stimulate more people to vote."
Whether Virginia's early poll closing time of 7 p.m. affects the final results: "It is important to understand for people in Virginia that early voting is an option for them if they have a long workday and a long commute. Virginia has very lenient laws when it comes to the excuses that are required for absentee voting," McDonald says. "I would encourage people to check with their election offices to see if they qualify for early voting, and there are all these sat voting locations as well, so there are lots of opportunities for people to vote. But yes, having a shorter amount of time could mean longer lines on Election Day and thus could potentially depress turnout as well. There have been some studies to that effect."