Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will slug it out in the presidential race for nine more weeks, but some voters have already begun casting ballots.
Thirty-seven states have laws allowing people to cast absentee ballots without an excuse, or in person, before Election Day on Nov. 8. North Carolina is the first state to start voting when it began mailing out absentee ballots on Friday and—voters there can also vote in person starting Oct. 20—Alabama does so later this week. Minnesota will kick off early in-person voting Sept. 23.
The rise of early voting has created a system in which candidates are under increasing pressure not to have a bad day or weak stretch of the campaign even weeks out from Election Day.
“Campaigns want voters to be thinking well about their candidate when the vote happens,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “If it happens for months, literally, there is more at stake in the early months.”
The start of early voting comes as the race between Clinton and Trump has tightened nationally and in key swing states. A Washington Post national poll released Sunday showed Clinton leading the race 46 percent to 41 percent among likely voters with the inclusion of Libertarian hopeful Gary Johnson at 9 percent and the Green Party's Jill Stein at 2 percent. In NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist polls released Sunday of four key swing states—Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and New Hampshire—Clinton and Trump were essentially tied.
Early balloting freezes the race for those who cast votes, making subsequent gaffes or high moments by the candidates irrelevant.
Clinton, for instance, was forced to leave a ceremony marking the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks after 90 minutes when her campaign spokesman said she became “overheated.” For Trump's part, CIA Director John Brennan denied in a television interview a claim Trump made during a military-issues forum last week that he sensed national-security figures were displeased with President Barack Obama.
Early voters will make up more than half of the electorate in the crucial states of North Carolina, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Arizona, and Georgia, according to projections from the Associated Press. In 2012, 35 percent of voters did so through either absentee ballots or by casting in person votes prior to the general election, the organization reported.
“By and large people know who they're going to vote for,” said Maurice Carroll, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University poll, who as a pollster and journalist has watched elections for 40 years. “There's a potential for a change only if something dramatic happens between when people vote and Election Day.”
The shift toward voting prior to Election Day took on new urgency after the 2004 contest between Republican incumbent George W. Bush and Democrat John Kerry. Scenes from Ohio in that election featured voters waiting in hours-long lines to cast ballots and problems with old-style paper voting machines.
“Largely early voting has been a success, particularly when it's coupled with same-day registration,” said Naila Awan, a civil-rights lawyer with the organization Demos, a left-leaning think tank that advocates for early voting. “It helps those individuals, such as hourly and wage workers, who have the hardest time voting.”
She said it's hard to determine which party early voting helps more, though she said in North Carolina it's been used heavily by African-American voters. In 2008, 60 percent of that state's African-American voters cast ballots before Election day; four years later, it was 64 percent.
“The more people who vote, the better it usually is for Democrats,” Zelizer said. “Given how low Trump's support was in late August it seems like early voting would benefit Democrats on this front as well.”
Dave Miranda, a spokesman for the North Carolina Democratic Party, said that state has been the site of a “robust” coordinated campaign that has targeted early voters as well as those who cast ballots in the traditional method. He said his party doesn't have a target number for the number of voters it hopes to coax to do so prior to Nov. 8.
“The goal is just to get as many of our supporters to vote as early as possible,” said.