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What is Early Voting and How Does It Work?

By September 29, 2012

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Vote signAn estimated 35 percent of the votes in the 2012 presidential race between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney will be cast before Election Day on Nov. 6.

How can that happen? A practice known as early voting.

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Laws in about two-thirds of the United States allow voters to cast their ballots before Election Day without providing a reason, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Political analysts have mixed opinions about early voting. Supporters say it increases voter participation and reduces overcrowding at polling places on the real Election Day. Critics believe early voting is harmful to a democracy because it allows citizens to vote before they have all the information about the candidates running for office, and it "dilutes" the concentrated civic nature of Election Day itself.

"When Election Day is merely the end of a long voting period, it lacks the sort of civic stimulation that used to be provided by local news media coverage and discussion around the water cooler," Barry C. Burden and Kenneth R. Mayer, professors of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote inThe New York Times in 2010.

"Fewer co-workers will be sporting 'I voted' stickers on their lapels on Election Day. Studies have shown that these informal interactions have a strong effect on turnout, as they generate social pressure. With significant early voting, Election Day can become a kind of afterthought, simply the last day of a drawn-out slog."

One thing political scientists can agree on, however, is that the emergence of early voting as a popular way to cast ballots has changed the way campaigns operate. Paul Gronke, director of the Early Voting Information Center, says political candidates have had to adjust to the timing of their messaging based on early voting and absentee balloting, which begins in the early fall in some parts of the country.

"We really have three elections going on at once," Gronke told National Public Radio. "We have one big election but three kind of regional elections."

To read more about early voting and which states allow it, read our story on the issue.

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November 7, 2012 at 4:51 pm
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