How many people vote early? Or when 50% becomes 45% becomes 17%.

Image courtey of kissmetrics.com

There have been some breathless stories over the last few days that vastly overstate the number of Americans who are likely to cast an early ballot, in person or no-excuse absentee, in the next few weeks.

Kyle Inskeep of NBC News titled his Sept 21st story:  “Early Voting: Half of US Begins Voting Tomorrow.”

Michelle Franzen of MSNBC repeats the statement: “Early Voting Begins in Many States.”  The title on the video says “Early Voting Expands” except that early voting has not expanded substantially since 2008 and in at least three states (GA, FL, OH) has been somewhat restricted.  Details, details.

What’s the problem?  Inskeep is strictly accurate if, when you hear “half the nation” you think “25 of 50 states, not counting DC.”  But I think most of us think “half the nation” means half of the voting population. Just like the U.S. Senate, Inskeep counts Wyoming as “1″ and California as “1″ even though Wyoming’s population is only 1.5% of California’s.

44.8% lived in states that have started early and absentee voting as of September 22nd.  It’s a less sexy number than “half” but it’s the right one.

States also vary dramatically in how many voters cast an early ballot.  In Delaware, for example, one of the states listed by Inskeep, over 95% of ballots were cast on Election Day in 2008.  Among the states that began early voting on September 22, six (Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hanpshire, New Jersey, and South Carolina) collected more than 90% of the ballots on election day.

In only nine states that begun early voting by Sept 22 (6/2013 hat tip to the Brennan Center for pointing out this incomplete sentence) (Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Maine, North Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia) did early votes total more than 30% of all votes in 2008.  For two o these, Georgia and Texas, the overwhelming majority of “early” votes are not cast no-excuse absentee but early in-person, which does not start for a few weeks.

If you “deflate” the population ratio by the proportion of voters in each state who cast an early ballot in 2008, half the population is now a paltry 17%.

Along with the brickbats should come the roses.  Aaron Blake at The Fix is going to update a spreadsheet with early voting totals on a regular basis (drawing on this site among others), and while the Aaron Blake still says that “huge chunks” of voters cast early ballots in some key battleground states, he does remind the reader that the early voting figures represent a tiny fraction of the electorate at present.

In Oregon, which mails its ballots 18 days before the election, seldom are 50% of the ballots returned a week before election day.  In other states, the totals are between 1/3 and 1/2 of the early votes have arrived 7 days prior to election day.  Most early voting occurs in the last week of the campaign.

It’s true that early voting has started in many states, and will start in more states in the upcoming weeks.  And it’s also true that both campaigns will be mobilizing those early votes as a way to “bank” voters.   But this doesn’t mean that half the country is going to tune out from the presidential contest or miss the debates,

And by the way, if you think voting early will save you time in line, think again.

In the 2008 Survey of the Performance of American Elections, MIT Professor Charles Stewart found that the average wait time for Eleciton Day voters in 2008 was 15 minutes.

And for early voters?  20 minutes–5 minutes longer (compare slides 4 and 5).

The early bird may get the worm, but he’ll have to wait in line for it!