FAIRFAX, Va. — Voters by the thousands will begin casting ballots for president this week in an early voting process that's expected to set records this year.
Residents of Virginia, Kentucky and Georgia are among the first in the nation eligible to vote in person, as well as by mail. During the next few weeks, at least 34 states and the District of Columbia will allow early in-person voting for Nov. 4 elections.
Experts such as Paul Gronke of the Early Voting Information Center predict nearly a third of the electorate will vote early this year, up from 15% in 2000 and 20% in 2004. In closely contested Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, about half the voters are expected to cast ballots before Election Day. Florida could be 40%.
"It's a sea change," says Rosemary Rodriguez, head of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. "This is a little bit astounding."
It's all part of the most extensive early voting process in history. The campaigns of Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama are already focused on getting voters to the polls, even as their general election contest is taking shape — and before any of the debates.
What used to be a 72-hour get-out-the-vote effort has become "a 720-hour program," says Rich Beeson, the Republican National Committee's political director.
Each side says it's ready. "We go through massive efforts to make sure our supporters know all the ways that they can vote," says Jon Carson, Obama's national field director.
The boom in early voting is fed by election officials' desire to expand turnout without overwhelming polls. "The operative word is options," says Pedro Cortés, president of the National Association of Secretaries of State.
In Georgia, where voting begins today, Secretary of State Karen Handel has urged voters to cast ballots early and expects about 1 million to do so — 25% of the electorate. "We don't want voters to have to wait in line on Election Day," she says.
A couple of counties in Virginia and Kentucky allowed voting late last week. On Friday, 244 people voted in Fairfax County, Va. A day earlier, 96 people kicked off the process in Louisville, despite widespread power outages caused by Hurricane Ike.
Both states only allow absentee votes by people unable to get to the polls on Election Day. Thirty-one states are more liberal, allowing anyone to vote early.