Early voting refers to extending voting over many days, and even weeks, and allow people to mail in ballots rather than show up in person on election day without having to provide a valid excuse. Traditionally, absentee voters had to state one of several allowed reasons to vote before election day, while early voting is available to all eligible voters. Scholars consider both early voting and absentee voting to be forms of "convenience voting", which are used by more that 30% of United States voters.
Early voting has spread as computer technology simplifies the task of preventing multiple votes by the same voter. Early voting has been adopted in many countries, including Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Thailand. As pushed by Democrats, many states in the United States have laws adopting forms of early voting. According to the Early Voting Center at Reed College, the following states allow early voting in 2012: North Carolina, Indiana, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Georgia, Arkansas, Idaho, Maryland, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Louisiana, Wyoming, North Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, Florida, California, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Alaska, Colorado, Kansas, Nevada and Hawaii.
In 2008, one-third of Americans voted prior to Election Day, and that fraction continues to increase. In the Nevada Election 2010, more than half the votes cast were by early voting. Some states make the list of early voters and absentee voters available to the public or to the political campaigns. By contrast, all states make the list of voters available after an election.
Most states allow early voting in some form, but the percentage of votes cast by early voting varies from 100%, in states where such voting is mandatory, to just a few percent, where liberal machine politics is less powerful.
Early voting data for 2010 in the swing states for the Presidential Election 2012 is as follows, with bolding for the States which do not allow no-excuse early voting, and italic text where such voting is mandatory.
|State||# Electoral College votes in 2012||Percentage that voted early or absentee in 2010|
There are two major objections to early voting. First, it facilitates voter intimidation, particularly by unions and large employers that try to increase turnout by their people. Second, it increases the potential for voter fraud, particularly in the absence of protections that safeguard the integrity of physical votes. Some critics claim early voting establishes a mechanism where union bosses and the Democratic machine can harass Americans until they vote. This risks infringement on the right not to vote.
While early voting plainly undermines the notion of a uniform Election Day, various arguments are used, typically by Democrats, to advocate its adoption by state legislatures. One argument is that early voting increases overall turnout. Another argument used in Ohio is that Ohio voters should not have to wait in line until 4:00 am the following morning to cast a ballot in a presidential election, as happened in 2004. Of course, extra poll workers, voting machines, and booths could be added for Election Day to address this concern. Some, including Ohio's Cuyahoga County, argue that early voting can save money in this regard, as the same machines and equipment that would otherwise be idle can be used, avoiding the need to purchase new and expensive election equipment. But Political Science Professor Todd Eberly argues that early voting adds millions of dollars in expense while lowering overall voter turnout:
|“||Early voting is actually a waste of taxpayer money that does not boost turnout. In a study of the 2008 election, researchers at the University of Wisconsin actually found that early voting results in lower turnout – not higher. Specifically they found that though more than 30 percent of votes cast in the 2008 presidential race arrived before Election Day, the study determined early voting actually depressed turnout in a typical county by 3 percentage points.||”|
In a 1996 study of early voting turnout in Tennessee elections in 1994, Lilliard E. Richardson, Jr. and Grant W. Neely said that early voting could increase overall turnout.
In a 2007 paper, Paul Gronke, Eva Galanes-Rosenbuam, and Peter A. Miller (all affiliated with Reed College) found that early voting improves the procedural integrity of elections and results in a modest increase in overall turnout. The authors nevertheless conclude "It is no longer a question of whether early voting is a smart reform; the question now is what sort of early voting to allow and how to adjust to its impact."
A state-by-state analysis is available showing the percentage of ballots cast in early voting, but note that the percentage is growing rapidly with each election.
Some people argue that early voting helps one political party over the other, but the impact of early voting depends on the circumstances of each particular election. Early voting has drawn support from both Republicans and Democrats.
In Colorado in "2008, Democrats had about a 25,000-ballot advantage over Republicans in early voting. But Republican turnout zoomed past Democrats' on Election Day, and more Republicans than Democrats ultimately voted in 2008." In 2010, there were about 1,638,000 votes cast for the U.S. Senate seat from Colorado, but well over 1 million people participated in early voting.
Maryland voters approved a constitutional amendment in November 2008 to allow early voting starting with the primary elections in 2010. Maryland now offers both early voting in person and absentee voting by mail.
In the 2012 General Election, 430,573 early votes were cast in Maryland. Of these early votes, 13.9% of registered Democratic voters and 9.3% of registered Republican voters voted early.
Virginia does not have formal early voting. However, Virginia provides for both mail-in and in-person absentee voting. To vote absentee, the voter must fill out an affidavit stating that one of several reasons for absentee voting applies. In contrast, in early voting states, any voter can vote before election day without stating a reason.
The absentee voting period begins 45 days before election day. In response to Hurricane Sandy reducing in-person absentee voting opportunities before the 2012 election, on October 28, 2012, Republican Governor Robert McDonnell announced that he was requesting the State Board of Elections to expand the number of in-person absentee voting hours between the end of the storm and the election day.
Virginia provides the list of people who have requested absentee ballots or have in-person absentee voted to political parties "upon request and for a reasonable fee." The parties then contact voters based on that data.
In November 2012, State Senator Janet Howell renewed her call for Virginia to adopt early voting after voters had to stand in line for hours in the 2012 General election.
Wisconsin does not have formal early voting. However, Wisconsin allows both mail-in and in-person absentee voting. In-person absentee voting is held in the two weeks before each election.
New Hampshire and Pennsylvania do not offer early voting.
In North Carolina, the list of absentee voters is available online without any charge. Iowa authorized in-person absentee voting starting 40 days before a primary or general election. Iowa charges for the absentee voter list on a per voter basis.
- Gronke, Galanes-Rosenbaum, Miller, Toffey. Convenience Voting. Retrieved on October 30, 2012.
- Early voting calendar, 2012. Retrieved on October 30, 2012.
- "Executives at the casino giant Harrah's pushed company employees to vote early in an all-out effort to help the Harry Reid campaign, according to internal emails obtained by Battle ‘10." 
- See, e.g., "Early Voting Fraud," National Review .
- L.E. Richardson, Jr. and G.E. Neely. "The impact of early voting on turnout: The 1994 elections in Tennessee." State & Local Government Review 28(3):173-79 (1996)
- P. Gronke, E. Galanes-Rosenbaum, and P.A. Miller. "Early voting and turnout." PS-WASHINGTON 40(4):639 (2007).
- Early Voting. Elections.state.md.us. Retrieved on November 14, 2012.
- Unofficial Early Vote Turnout (Statewide) (PDF). Retrieved on November 14, 2012.
- Walker, Julian. "In-person absentee voting scheduled today in Va.", The Virginian-Pilot, October 27, 2012. Retrieved on October 27, 2012.
- Absentee Voting. Retrieved on October 27, 2012.
- Walker, Julian. "Early voting period in Virginia has begun", The Virginian-Pilot, September 30, 2012. Retrieved on October 27, 2012.
- Wilson, Todd. "McDonnell urges caution and preparation; will expand hours for absentee voting", Hampton Roads Daily Press, October 28, 2012. Retrieved on October 30, 2012.
- Va. Code § 24.2-710.
- Haines, Errin. "Campaigns pay to track absentee ballots in Virginia", Washington Post, October 27, 2012, p. B1.
- Contorno, Steve. "Long lines reignite push for early voting in Virginia", Washington Examiner, November 12, 2012. Retrieved on November 14, 2012.
- Absentee Voting. Government Accountability Board. Retrieved on October 30, 2012.
- "How Sandy Affects Early Voting in Swing States", ABC News, October 29, 2012. Retrieved on October 30, 2012.
- Absentee Voting in Person. Iowa Secretary of State. Retrieved on October 30, 2012.
- http://www.uakron.edu/bliss/research/archives/2010/EarlyVotingReport.pdf -- A study of early voting in Ohio