Early Voting: Convenient for Voters, Challenging for Campaigns

Election Day still more than two weeks away but voting already underway.

WASHINGTON, Oct. 15, 2010— -- Election Day is still more than two weeks away, but Americans across the nation are already heading to the voting booths and casting their ballots.

Russ Erby of Franklin County, Ohio, was among the first people to cast his ballot. He took advantage of the state's early voting that started Sept. 28.

"I might not be able to come on Election Day and this way, I'm done," he said.

Such convenience has apparently appealed to more and more Americans with busy schedules.

"We're making it as easy as possible," Bill Anthony of the Franklin County Board of Elections said. "You shouldn't have long lines at all. We're processing folks really quickly."

More than 40 states have some form of early voting, either in-person via a voting booth or by mail (what people know as absentee ballots), according to the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Portland, Ore.

About one-third of the ballots in the 2008 presidential race were cast before Election Day, according to the information center and the Associated Press.

A similar percentage of Americans could vote early in this year's midterm elections, analysts say.

In Ohio, which features competitive races for governor and Senate, more than 600,000 ballots were requested in the first week of early voting, from Sept. 28 to Oct. 4. For perspective, that's about 15 percent of the total votes cast in the 2006 midterm election.

In Iowa, there have been 119,430 early votes cast so far, which is 13 percent of the total number of votes cast in 2006.

Even first lady Michelle Obama took advantage of the convenience of early voting, casting a ballot Wednesday at a voting center in her hometown of Chicago.

At an event earlier this week, Obama encouraged Americans to follow her lead.

"Early voting has already started here in Illinois," she said at the campaign event for Democratic Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias. "And we need you to get folks to the polls so they can start casting their ballots this week.

"We also need you to find those folks who are planning to sit this one out, and we need you to tell them that they can't vote just once and then just hope for change to happen."

Early Voting Costs Candidates More

The recent surge in early voting has changed the concept of Election Day, which now seems like a quaint vestige of another era.

Like so much in U.S. culture, voting is now "On Demand," when you want it and where you want it.

Early voting has also changed how campaigns are run: Every day is now Election Day. Campaigns can no longer afford to wait for the traditional 72-hour push the weekend before Election Day because voters can cast their ballot as soon as it arrives in the mail.

As a result, campaigning at all levels has become more expensive. Candidates have to run television ads and target voters earlier and earlier.

"It forces campaigns to really spend money and get up on TV and send out mail earlier," said John McClelland, spokesman for the Ohio Republican Party.

The early voting by mail also allows political parties to identify who requested a ballot and hone in on them.

But the downside of early voting is that it becomes "an incumbent protection mechanism," strategists say, meaning it's easier for established incumbents to organize early "Get Out the Vote" efforts and much harder for challengers to put money and resources in place early on.

Both parties in Ohio said they have unprecedented Get Out the Vote programs for a midterm election.

Early voting is more about locking down the votes of hard-core supporters than drawing in independents and undecided voters, strategists from both parties said. The goal is to "bank" those votes in order to target undecided voters later.

"There's a whole bunch of basically diehard Democrats who will show up on Election Day no matter what; that's their ritual," said Doug Kelly, executive director of the Ohio Democratic Party. "But there's another group that is really important."

That group includes first-time voters in 2008, who may not vote in a midterm, and "average folks" with busy schedules who need a push to get to the polls and would appreciate the convenience of early voting, he said

Early Voting Good for Democracy?

Party strategists in Washington and in battleground states said they believe that early voting will increase the number of Americans who participate in elections.

"Every time you have that happen," Kelly said, "it's a good thing for democracy overall."

ABC News' Michael Falcone and Amy Walter contributed to this report.