Early voting favors Democrats.
That's what the Obama campaign reportedly tried to argue in Ohio recently, where Republican attempted to restrict in-person early voting. There's just one problem. It's not true. At least not entirely.
While early voting favored President Obama over his Republican challenger John McCain in 2008, and in-person early voting the weekend before an election in some specific instances does favor Democrats, Republicans have traditionally dominated early voting.
Michael McDonald, a professor at George Mason University who tracks early voting, says the 2008 campaign, in which Obama benefited from early voting, was an exception, not the rule.
"As far as we can tell, looking back at statistics of the overall national pattern, generally Republicans voted early prior to 2008 and in 2010 reverted back to that pattern," McDonald said.
There was "enthusiasm among Obama supporters [in 2008] and a campaign with mobilization efforts really geared toward early voting," he added. "Contrast that with McCain, where there was less enthusiasm, and his campaign really didn't have an early voter mobilization strategy, and not surprisingly, Democrats tended to vote early in 2008."
In the Ohio case, Democrats argued that low-income and minority voters would be most affected by the ruling.
There's also no reason Republicans shouldn't lead early voting nationally in 2012. The Romney campaign has already invested in early voting in primaries, according to McDonald, and he says there is every indication that such efforts will continue in the general election.
"They saw what happened in 2008," McDonald said, "and they're not going to let that happen again."
He added that enthusiasm among Republicans was lacking in 2008, but it reappeared in 2010, and many Republicans voted early that year, "so we should see greater parity in 2012."
This year, fewer voters are as excited about casting a ballot for Obama than four years ago, and the race is shaping up to be a close one. And with about 30 percent or more of all votes in this election are likely to be cast early, campaign organizers have spend time and energy trying to convince those voters that their party is the best choice.
Battleground states, in the election and in court
Several contentious battles over early voting in swing states such as Ohio and Florida, have helped fuel the idea that Democrats dominate early voting. While that is not generally the case, Democrats do dominate the weekend prior to an election. McDonald says the argument that early voting favors Democrats is mostly made based on that weekend, and on 2008, which was an anomalous year.
Many African-Americans, a voting bloc that almost entirely backs the president, vote early as part of a church-led mobilization effort, where church groups organize rides to voting places the first weekend in November.
There is no reason Republicans could not engage their voters in the same manner, he added.
"They could have rural churches make early voting part of their mobilization strategy," he said. "So in some respects, people are looking particularly at the 2008 election and then they infer that's the way it was and always will be. I don't think that's necessarily true."
And what about for Latino voters? Couldn't churches mobilize Latinos the same way churches get African-Americans to the polls?
Not so fast, says Louis DeSipio, a University of California, Irvine political science professor.
"More [Latinos] live in noncompetitive states and…neither presidential candidates and neither party is going to invest a great deal in turning out votes in those states," DeSipio said. "But in competitive states, we will see outreach efforts to Latino organizations to spread the word to members. Black churches are a more cohesive set of organizations, and there isn't really an equivalent in Latino communities, and Latino churches are often somewhat more integrated."
That's not to say it couldn't happen, though.
DeSipio points out that the Bush campaign was very successful in mobilizing Hispanics through churches in New Mexico in 2004, "and it sort of tipped New Mexico to Bush, so it was one of the flip states, but there isn't a single sort of resource for doing that."
The Obama campaign organizers are well aware he won swing states such as Florida, Colorado, North Carolina and Iowa in large part because of early voting, and the president has added a call to vote early in to his standard campaign speech. Republican challenger Mitt Romney is doing the same in an attempt to reach the growing number of early voters.
Even still, Republican legislatures in Florida and Ohio have tried to limit early voting. The Associated Press notes that John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, would have won all four swing states listed above if election-day votes alone decided the election.
A federal judge tossed out an Ohio law that would have limited early voting and ordered the state to allow all voters the right to cast their ballots in person on the final three days before the election. The New York Times reports that the state Democratic Party and Obama's campaign had sued the state over a law that ended early in-person voting on the Friday before the election to all voters but those serving in the military and living overseas.
The ruling in Ohio is significant. More than 25 percent of Ohio voters cast their ballots early in the 2010 election according to a report by The University of Akron's Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics.
According to the study, early voting has become increasingly common in Ohio, and more women than men vote early. Early voters are also likely to have some college education, but not a degree, while election-day voters tend to be college-educated. Only in 2008 did minorities make up a greater portion of the early vote than the Election Day vote, notes McDonald. Non-Hispanic whites typically make up a greater percentage of early voters than Election Day voters.
In Ohio, according to the study, race and ethnicity were not significant factors in early voting. And election-day voters favored Republican candidates while early voters favored Democratic candidates.
"The concern in Florida and Ohio, those laws were narrowly targeted at a specific period, and specific method, that Democrats, African-Americans primarily, use. In the weekend before elections, we tend to see the greatest number of Democrats show up to vote," McDonald said.
The New York Times notes that Ohio opened early voting to all voters after thousands of Ohioans were unable to cast ballots before the polls closed in the 2004 election due to long lines. Ohio is one of 32 states that allow some form of early voting, although that term is loose and includes states that range from Oregon, where voting is done almost entirely by mail, to Virginia, where voters must provide a reason for casting a ballot early.
Is 2012 another 2008 or more of the same?
While history supports the idea that Republicans will lead early voting in 2012, McDonald has tracked some interesting early developments that run counter to that theory.
McDonald reports that in North Carolina this year, the number of absentee ballot applications leading into the first day of ballot distribution was down by nearly half, from 37,539 to 20,695. And the number of registered Republicans requesting absentee ballots is down more than the number for Democrats. Republicans composed 51 percent of applicants in 2008 compared with 42 percent in 2012.
And a report by Chapman University finds that the number of military absentee ballot applications is down to 2,127 in 2012 from 3,949 in 2008, a 46 percent decline. As McDonald notes of the Chapman study, military personnel may have been particularly enthusiastic about supporting John McCain, himself a decorated veteran.
McDonald expects about 35 percent of all votes in the 2012 election to be cast early. He notes that the campaigns adjusted their strategies to the way people vote.
"Election officials track the status of every registered voter -- whether the voted in-person early, and if they have a mail ballot in hand or if it has been returned," he writes in an article for the Huffington Post. "The campaigns scratch these voters off their target lists and refocus their efforts to those who have yet to vote."
Ohio is especially interesting, McDonald notes, because the state sent absentee ballots to registered voters in urban areas in 2010, which significantly increased the number of people who chose to vote by mail. This year, absentee ballots will be sent to all registered voters including those in rural areas, which may mitigate the weekend before the election, or free up polling places this election cycle.
He notes that the Romney campaign forecasts that 70 percent of Florida voters will cast ballots early, compared with about 52 percent in 2008, and it says 45 percent of Ohio voters will likely vote early compared with only about 25 percent in 2008.
"Some have tried to cut back on early voting as part of a broader strategy to control the vote a little more, whether you put a partisan spin on it or not," DeSipio said. "Democrats have been fighting that, and it shows both a philosophical openness to more expansive voting and that their voters tend to be a little less reliable."
So what will the future of early voting look like, not just in 2012, but beyond?
DeSipio thinks the practice is here to stay, and he notes that in terms of finances, it makes sense.
"It's ultimately cheaper for states to invest in early voting," he said. "Polling places are expensive to provide technology for and it's hard to get poll workers."
If Republicans have traditionally dominated early voting, the push among some conservative lawmakers to limit it seems counterproductive. No state has attempted to do away with early voting altogether, but there's a concern that the other side, in this case Democrats, might benefit from including more people in early voting.
"It's more narrowing early voting than eliminating it," said DeSipio. "There's this idea that they think their people will show up anyway."