* By end of month, 30 states will start early voting
* Court in Florida hears arguments in dispute over new law
* Both parties seek out those who will vote before Nov. 6
By Deborah Charles
WASHINGTON, Sept 20 The Nov. 6 election is still
seven weeks away, but early, in-person voting begins in two
states on Friday, even as Democrats and Republicans battle in
court over controversial plans to limit such voting before
Idaho and South Dakota are the first states to begin early
voting on Friday, although North Carolina has been accepting
absentee ballots by mail since Sept. 6. By the end of September,
30 states will have begun either in-person or absentee voting,
and eventually all the states will join in.
Much of the focus of the early voting period will be on the
politically divided states of Ohio and Florida, which could be
crucial in deciding the race between Democratic President Barack
Obama and Republican Mitt Romney.
The states have also been the venues for court battles in
which Democrats have accused Republican-led legislatures of
trying to limit early voting periods in order to suppress
turnout of working-class and minority voters.
Such voters make up large percentages of those casting
ballots before Election Day, and they tend to back Democrats.
Absentee ballots, popular among military voters, tend to favor
The restrictions on early voting are among several election
laws passed by Republican-led legislatures since 2010.
Other new laws, also challenged by Democrats and
voting-rights groups, have been aimed at limiting voter
registration and requiring voters to show photo IDs. Republicans
say the laws are aimed at preventing voter fraud.
The push to limit early voting came after Obama's aggressive
early voting campaign in 2008 helped propel him to victory over
Republican Senator John McCain - and showed the power of the
bloc of early voters.
Early voters are particularly coveted because once they cast
their ballots, the candidates they support can turn their focus
to attracting undecided voters.
Early voting accounted for a record 30 percent of all votes
cast in the 2008 election. In Florida, more than half of the
votes were cast before Election Day.
More than half of the African-Americans who cast ballots in
Florida four years ago - 54 percent - voted early, nearly twice
the rate of whites. In five of the state's 67 counties, at least
two-thirds of blacks cast their ballots before Election Day,
according to a Reuters analysis of state voter data.
"It's pretty powerful evidence that African-Americans have
come to rely on early voting," said Daniel Smith, a political
science professor at the University of Florida.
"The change in early voting is not yet finalized in
Florida," he added, noting that several lawsuits were pending on
the new laws.
LAWSUITS IN FLORIDA, OHIO
Since the 2008 election, Florida's Republican-controlled
Legislature has reduced the number of early voting days to
eight from 14, a plan that drew criticism from Democrats and
In Jacksonville, Florida, on Wednesday, a federal judge
heard arguments in a lawsuit filed by Democratic U.S.
Representative Corrine Brown. She wants the court to overturn
the new Florida law, which also eliminates voting on the Sunday
before Election Day.
The law already has been the focus of a lawsuit by the U.S.
Justice Department, which under the Voting Rights Act must
approve election changes in five Florida counties with a history
of racial repression.
After a federal court said last month the new law unfairly
hurt minorities, the state appeased the federal government by
agreeing to extend the voting hours on each of the eight
remaining days of early voting.
But the new lawsuit filed by Brown also takes issue with a
part of the law that eliminates voting on the Sunday before
Election Day, saying it unfairly affects blacks, a sizeable
number of whom tend to vote after going to church.
Absentee voting in Florida begins on Oct. 2. In-person early
voting is now allowed from Oct. 27 through Nov. 3.
There also is legal wrangling over early voting in Ohio,
where a federal judge recently overturned new early voting
restrictions, saying the state did not have a strong enough
reason to change the rules. The state government has appealed.
In 2011, Ohio legislators passed a law eliminating early
in-person voting the last three days before Election Day for
everyone but members of the U.S. military. Supporters of the
changes said they would help prevent voter fraud and give
election officials more time to prepare for Election Day.
But Obama's campaign and Democrats sued to reinstate early
voting for everyone in the last three days before the election.
Democrats said about 93,000 Ohio voters used the last three days
of early voting in 2008.
THE FIGHT FOR EARLY VOTERS
Even as Republicans have sought to restrict early voting,
they are showing signs of being more effective in getting their
supporters to cast ballots before Election Day - an indication
that Obama's success in 2008 made an impression.
During the bruising Republican primary battle, Romney's
focus on early voters in Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin
helped him win the primaries in those states.
Obama's 2008 campaign perfected an aggressive strategy of
targeting early voters and holding rallies in states once early
voting had begun, to encourage supporters to vote right away
instead of waiting for Election Day.
This week in Ohio, where in-person early voting begins on
Oct. 2, Obama reminded supporters to vote early. He targeted
younger voters, who tend to favor him but are among the least
reliable groups of voters when it comes to showing up at the
polls on Election Day.
"You can start showing up and voting on October 2nd - that's
15 days away," Obama said on Monday in Columbus, drawing laughs
when he added: "I see some young people here. Young people, you
got to use early vote because you might not wake up in time on
Michael McDonald, a political science professor at George
Mason University, said early voters tended to be better informed
partisans who know whom they wanted to vote for. The challenge,
McDonald said, was to make sure they cast a ballot.
"We have a specific strategy for each state to capitalize on
early and absentee votes," said Rich Beeson, political director
for Romney's campaign. "We understand the importance of
maximizing those votes prior to Election Day."