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."