MIAMI (Reuters) - More and more U.S. voters are casting their ballots before their state’s official primary election day, blurring the calendar in a presidential nominating contest that once moved from state to state in prescribed order.
Election analysts say the trend favors candidates with fat wallets and strong organizations and creates the possibility of exit polling before the polls even open.
Only one state has already held its election -- Iowa, which kicked off the nominating process for the November presidential election last week. But campaign workers say tens of thousands of voters have already cast primary ballots in Florida, Missouri, Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey and New York.
Ballots will be mailed on Monday to millions of Californians who will return them before the February 5 election in that state, the nation’s most populous and biggest electoral prize.
“California has in effect an election month,” Debra Bowen, California’s top election official, told Reuters.
Many states used to restrict absentee balloting to those whose health or travel schedules prevented them from going to the polls. The rules have been eased in hopes that convenience will boost participation, which rose to 64 percent in the last presidential election in 2004 but is typically far less in the primary contests that determine the major party nominees.
Thirty-one U.S. states now let voters cast ballots in person before election day and 29 allow mail-in balloting with no excuses required, according to the Web site electionline.org, which tracks voting reform. California doesn’t even call them “absentee voters” any more. By law they are now “vote-by-mail voters.”
“It’s been exploding,” said Paul Gronke, director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Oregon.
Early voters tend to be older, wealthier, better informed and more partisan than other voters, studies have shown.
“The kind of people who vote in primaries are also the same people who vote early, so it’s amplified,” Gronke said.
Campaigns that would normally run a flurry of advertising and phone banks just before election day must now run at a fever pace for several weeks before election day, and in several states at a time.
Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign has already made more than 400,000 calls on her behalf in California, where more than 40 percent of voters are expected to cast ballots before election day on February 5.
“We have been planning this for months,” said Luis Vizcaino, a Clinton campaign spokesman in California. “The eyes of the prize is the absentee ballots.”
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani didn’t even go to Iowa on Thursday for its nominating caucuses, where he finished a distant sixth among Republican contenders there. He campaigned instead in more populous Florida, where a third of voters are expected to cast ballots before the January 29 election. More than 151,000 Republicans asked for absentee ballots in Florida, more Republicans than voted in Iowa, his campaign noted.
Political parties generally have access to regularly updated government records showing when someone votes, enabling them to time their phone calls and mailings accordingly or give an extra nudge to voters who asked for mail-in ballots but haven’t yet returned them.
“It’s expensive and it’s time-consuming, so a campaign that is just getting going and has a huge influx of money late, it may be hard for him to get ramped up to do that work if he’s not already on the ground,” Gronke said. “It will benefit the better organized, better funded campaigns.”
Early votes don’t get counted until election day, but there is nothing to stop campaigns from calling those who have already cast ballots and asking who they voted for. Released publicly, such exit poll results could help sway voters who have yet to cast ballots, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that raises ethical questions, Gronke said.
But the downside of early voting in a primary election is the risk of voting for a candidate who withdraws before that vote is counted, notes Quinnipiac University pollster Peter Brown.
“In a general election, voting early, you know who the candidates are,” Brown said. “In this system, it’s essentially a knockout system ... I think we all know the field will be narrower.”
Additional reporting by Adam Tanner in San Francisco; Editing by Eric Beech
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