[Image courtesy of USA Today (data by Early Voting Information Center)]
On Monday, USA Today's had a story by Richard Wolf - one of the precious few reporters who keep coming back to election administration issues - about early voting and its potential impact on the GOP Presidential nomination race.
As always, I'm not terribly interested in the politics - being an election geek, not a political junkie - but there are few nuggets tucked into Rich's story that are worth noting as we rumble further into 2012.
First of all, early voting poses significant data challenges, given that it expands Election Day over time:
"It generally benefits the better organized candidates with more money, because it's costly to do this," says Paul Gronke, a political science professor at Reed College in Oregon who runs the Early Voting Information Center. That is because targeting voters isn't cheap. It requires processing several layers of voter information from state and county elections officials to determine who votes absentee, who votes early, and whether they have already voted. (emphasis added)
Second, early and absentee voting impose "costs" on individual voters that they may or may not be willing to pay depending on the race. I have always believed that the one thing early/absentee voters have in common is that they are less undecided than other voters - so sure of their choice that they are willing to forgo the right to change their minds.
Such voters may be fewer and far between in a primary race as fluid as the GOP contest:
In theory, at least, primary voters are less likely to cast ballots early for two reasons: They may have a tougher time deciding among several candidates from the same party, and they aren't certain who will stay in or drop out by the time their primary rolls around.
"Generally, voters like to hold on to their ballot a little bit longer than in general elections," says Michael McDonald, an associate professor at George Mason University in Virginia who tracks early voting trends.
Finally, the efforts of GOP candidates to invest time and energy in early/absentee voting operations could signal that their party is closing the gap with Democrats, who used both (but especially early voting) in such large numbers in 2008, as Wolfe's story notes. This increase in demand for early and absentee voting is something that election officials across the nation, but especially in battleground states, will need to keep in mind as 2012 continues.
It's not just the Presidential race; with all of the primaries, special elections and state and local contests on the ballot in 2012, it's a pretty good bet that on any given day somewhere in the United States, voters will be casting ballots - and not always at a polling place on Election Day.