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Crawford: Early voting changes face of elections

POSTED: October 30, 2008 5:00 a.m.

I went to the local election office in DeKalb County last week to cast an early ballot for the Nov. 4 election, thinking it would be a good idea to vote ahead of time and beat the crowds on election day.

Foolish me. When I arrived a few minutes before 8 a.m., there was already a line of 200 people or more filling a long hallway in the cavernous building that used to be a Home Depot store. The early voters moved steadily forward as I filled out my ballot application, but the length of the line didn't get any shorter; it quickly filled in behind me and got longer as would-be voters kept streaming in.

I asked one of the poll workers, "Is it like this all day?"

"Yes," she nodded, and motioned for me and the people around me to keep moving.
This is a scene being repeated all across Georgia in counties big and small as we get closer to a historic presidential election.

By the close of business on Oct. 17, the secretary of state's office said nearly 636,000 people had already cast early ballots. At that point in time, there were 11 more business days when people could vote early. With an average of 35,000 to 40,000 people a day casting ballots, that would indicate the projection of 1 million early voters will be met.

It's not just Georgia where we are seeing these energized waves of early voters. The same dynamic has been observed in states like North Carolina, which started its early voting period last week.

Nearly 114,000 people turned out for the first day of early voting in the Tar Heel State, a number that exceeded the 2004 total by 40 percent, and state officials reported that early-vote locations were overwhelmed.

There are national and local factors that have contributed to this phenomenon. Nationally, Barack Obama's campaign organization has been making a coordinated effort to register millions of new voters and get them out to the polls. African-American voters are responding to that effort and turning out in force because they see a black candidate who has a realistic chance of winning the presidency.

Closer to home, the Republican-controlled General Assembly amended the election laws to allow Georgia voters to cast absentee ballots during the 45 days prior to the election without have to provide any excuses for voting early.

The change in the law was adopted because Republicans traditionally have been the group more likely to vote by absentee ballot, but that logic has been turned on its head this year. Large numbers of black voters are taking advantage of the early voting law, as is evident from the voting statistics.

The trend is so widespread that the National Association of Secretaries of State is projecting that up to 30 percent of the votes nationwide will be cast before election day gets here.

Early voting is going to change the way elections are run and the way the media covers them. The Valdosta Daily Times, for example, recently wrote an in-house editorial explaining that the South Georgia newspaper was not going to endorse any candidates this year.

"With potentially a third of Lowndes County's votes already cast, it seems too late to make any endorsement other than if you haven't already voted, please vote within the next two weeks of early/advanced voting or on Election Day," the Daily Times commented.

Early voting will also make it harder for political candidates to change the momentum of a campaign by running negative ads in the closing days. These last-minute attacks will have less effect on an election where many of the voters have already cast their ballots.

Election officials who have a feel for this kind of thing tell me that Georgia's voter turnout will be at least 85 percent this year, with some counties having as much as 90 to 95 percent of the eligible voters casting ballots.

We have had many elections where less than half of the registered voters turned out, which means the candidates elected to public office had the support of less than one-quarter of the voters they would be governing.

If the turnout this year is as high as predicted, then we'll be electing public officials who actually have the support of a true majority of the electorate. That's not a bad thing.

Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact's Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Thursdays.



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