Georgians begin no-excuse balloting today for the March 6 primary.  There are nine candidates on the ballot.

I’ve blogged a few times about the unanticipated infrastructure demands created by early voting. Most elections offices are designed to handle a few hundred citizens with questions about registration or disabled citizens needing use special access machines, not thousands or tens of thousands of voters showing up to cast a ballot.

This story from Jackson County, MO, just outside of Kansas City, illustrates the problem.

Five election dates, new legislative districts thanks to the 2010 census and even seemingly simple things like generating new notification cards for every registered voter. And the November ballot – with a presidential race, several statewide races and initiatives, state legislative contests and possibly local ballot issues – is expected to be long.

The Democratic director of the board, Bob Nichols, noted “We had people lined up outside and in our office.” Tammy Brown, Nichols’s Republican counterpart, added “It is a crazy year.”

Adapt or die, as my colleague Doug Chapin often notes, and in this case, adaptation was easy. The story doesn’t note who saw the empty storefront across the street, but the Board has rented it, and just like that, more space for voting, shorter lines, and less stress on the elections staff.

A little mathematics and some web browsing skills, and it looks like somewhere between 8% and 17% of the ballots in Florida have already been cast.

Keep in mind that, as of today, four candidates (Bachmann, Cain, Huntsman, and Perry) were on these ballots, and three (Bachmann, Huntsman, and Perry) were still actively competing well into the absentee balloting period.

We’ll use Miami Dade County to make our calculations, but this same exercise can be done throughout Florida (and you can bet the Romney, Gingrich, and Santorum forces are making these calculations daily).

Miami Dade County, reports 42,149 absentee ballots returned as of close of business yesterday, totaling 32% of the 130,491 ballots mailed out. The Miami Herald reports 143,000 ballots voted statewide, just over 30% of absentee ballot requests.

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Early voting story by Richard Wolf of the USA Today. 

Upcoming primaries, and the percentage of votes cast early in 2008:

State Primary Date Early Voting Rate in 2008
Florida 1/31/2012 54%
Arizona 2/28/2012 53%
Michigan 2/28/2012 25%
Georgia 3/6/2012 53%
Ohio 3/6/2012 30%
Tennessee 3/6/2012 60%
Vermont 3/6/2012 29%
Illinois 3/20/2012 22%
Wisconsin 4/3/2012 21%
Texas 4/3/2012 66%

It is surprisingly difficult to predict the percentage of ballots that will come in early, via in-person voting or no-excuse absentee ballots, in the upcoming primaries.  Many states have only recently begun to report individual voting histories that include the mode of ballot return, and even if they do have that information, even fewer provide the date.

At least one well-known data aggregator – Catalist – doesn’t capture the date of the ballot return on its permanent database, although that information is collected in real-time during election season.

Florida is a nice example: it does a wonderful job reporting early voting data, including the exact date that the ballot was cast. Individual no-excusse absentee records, however, are only available to registered party committees and candidate organizations.

To make things even more complicated, we know that Republican voters have historically tended to use no-excuse absentee ballots at a much higher rate than Democratic voters.

With all these caveats, the table reports the percentage of ballots that were cast prior to election day in the 2008 general election for selected upcoming states. Any state reporting less than 20% advance voting has been excluded. If you are trying to project backwards, most states now mail their domestic no-excuse ballots 45 days before the date of the election, the same time they are required to mail UOCAVA ballots.

Citizens who have registered to vote absentee can start to vote “in person” absentee in Missouri.

There aren’t a lot of Missouri absentee ballots cast–they are an “excuse required” state according to NCSL and according to our figures, 6.2% voted absentee in 2010 and 11% voted absentee in 2008.  We have not collected data on absentee voting in the primary (and can’t find it on Missouri’s website).

Orlando Sentinel: Whatever happens in the next few weeks, 630,000 absentee ballots are already in the mail. Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann are on these ballots.

The 2010 Report and datasets have been released by the EAC.

Regardless of what happens to the Election Assistance Commission, I hope Congress continues to require and fund the Election Administration and Voting Survey (as well as the NVRA and UOCAVA surveys.

All three provide invaluable insights into the conduct of American elections voting, the most fundamental act of democracy and citizenship. Without the national perspective provided by these three data reporting instruments, it becomes much more difficult to impossible to monitor, evaluate, and improve the democratic process, whether it be making sure everyone who is eligible has a chance to register; that uniformed personnel and overseas citizens have sufficient time to vote; or that each American citizen, regardless of state, county, or township, has a full and equal right to vote.

The domestic absentee mailing deadline–for many states, not tied to the 45 day window mandated by the MOVE Act for UOCAVA ballots–is starting to impact the presidential race. I’ve argued in the past that states have probably made this change to save money and ease administration, but the domestic absentee ballots could be mailed much closer to the date of the election.

Today’s Richmond Times Dispatch story reports that the deadline for Gingrich to get on the VA ballot is January 21, so that the absentee and the precinct place ballots are identical.  

A recent paper by Marc Meredity and Neil Maholtra in the Election Law Journal (this article has been designated as free content) showed how changes in the list of candidates–mainly candidates who withdraw after absentee ballots are printed and early votes are cast–can substantially alter voter decision making.  I don’t think the authors have thought about the reverse, candidates who may not be on an absentee ballot but do make it onto the polling place ballot!