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Early voting is a game-changer
Campaigns react to 45-day stretch of casting ballots
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Early voting stickers line a table at the Hall County Elections Office in Gainesville. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Elections Guide: A full list of the candidates and ballot questions on the Nov 2. ballot in Northeast Georgia, plus voter information and election office contacts

Early voting is creating a marked change in the way candidates are tackling their campaigns this election season.

Since 2008, voters have been allowed to vote early for any reason. Since 1989, absentee voting was allowed 45 days ahead of the November Election Day, but voters needed a reason or excuse to come in early, Secretary of State Brian Kemp's spokesman Matt Carrothers said.

In the 2008 general election, more than half of voters came in early, about 2 million of the 3.9 million total in Georgia. That showed a large jump from the 2004 election, in which early voting was only allowed for specific reasons. In that election 387,596 voted early of the 3.2 million voters, or about 9 percent.

Hall County has seen a similar upward trend.

In the 2004 general election, 9,200 voted early of the 49,908 total. In 2008, 27,570 of a total 60,276 voters, nearly 35 percent, voted early, according to Interim Elections Director Charlotte Sosebee.

"It gets more popular every year," Sosebee said. "The more that people have gotten familiar with it, the more we have showing up to vote early."

Heath Garrett, a Republican political strategist, said early voting has caused a "monumental shift" in the way political campaigns operate. Because the early voting period is so new, there is still a lot to learn.

"Most of the campaigns in Georgia are learning from the 2008 election. 2008 showed that most campaigns, other than the presidential campaigns were not prepared for the impact of early voting," Garrett said. "Early voting by all measures was a huge success in 2008 and probably will continue to be. This year is another experiment so to speak."

Now that voters head to the polls early, campaigns have to catch them early as well. Garrett said campaigning has become more expensive as a result.

"It's almost like you have to have the same resources you had in the last week to 10 days in a campaign before early voting, but then you have to add onto that the resources to allow you to advertise and engage the electorate in the weeks leading up to early voting," Garrett said.

"With your paid advertising, you have to peak just before and right around the beginning of early voting, which is 45 days prior to Election Day. And then you have to sustain some kind of paid advertising now for that entire period of time. Then you have to repeak as you get into the week of what we call advance voting heading right into Election Day."

Garrett said there is a big difference between what the gubernatorial and Senate campaigns can do and how the down-ticket races cope with the costs of early voting.

In a state with a population of 10 million, the cost of advertising and direct mail in Georgia is expensive.
"Those campaigns don't have the budget to do television or radio so they really have to rely on good, old-fashioned grass-roots campaigning," Garrett said.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle's campaign officials said volunteer efforts have been prolonged.

"With an increasing number of early voters casting their ballots before TV commercials air and mail arrives, it's more important than ever to establish a grass-roots organization that can build support for a candidate prior to early voting," said Ryan Cassin, Cagle's campaign manager. "This is why the lieutenant governor has worked so hard to cultivate an aggressive grassroots network in all 159 counties, and grow his team of supporters on social media like Facebook."
Cagle still plans traditional forms of outreach, such as TV and mail ads, during the latter stages of the campaign. But the grass-roots effort has played a large part of the early campaign, Cassin said.

For some voters, it's working.

Joan and Ronnie Harrison of Murrayville stopped by the Hall County Elections Office just before it closed at 5 p.m. Wednesday.

"We like to come and vote at our convenience," Joan Harrison said. "We like missing the lines and everything happening on just one day."

With campaigns reaching out more than the week or two before Election Day, voters can learn more about the candidates before voting, she said.

"You have the time to find out more and take your time reading instead of cramming all the information in before you go to the polls," she said. "Again, it's back to that one day."

Douglas Young, a political science professor at Gainesville State College, isn't so sure the 45-day time frame is a good idea.

"On one hand, I respect the desire to try to help more people vote because things can always come up unexpectedly on Election Day with the weather or car trouble," he said. "However, I'm troubled by the fact that Georgians can vote so early. If you look at American history, so often in the last six weeks of campaigning is when important debates occur. So many other events can take place after people have voted."

This includes news media uncovering new information, candidates disclosing each other's potential weaknesses and the release of financial information, he said.

"A good survey might poll those who voted several weeks early before more information came out and how many regret having voted early," Young said. "I think a week or two weeks is gracious time to get your act together and get to the polls. Six weeks out is long before relevant information may come out."

The negative campaigning right before Election Day may not matter to voters anyway, some Hall County early voters said.

"They're throwing so much trash at each other. It's not going to change my decision because now they're just beating each other up so much," said Bobby Patten, a Gainesville resident who voted Friday afternoon. "I decided to just get it out of the way and vote."

Garrett said the effect of such prolonged negative campaigning has yet to be seen.

"If you're in a competitive race, the negative attacks all start earlier," Garrett said. "I think we're going to learn a lot this year from that kind of impact."

Irene Howell, a Flowery Branch resident who also voted Friday afternoon, said residents should already be well-read on their candidates and should be able to vote early.

"I already decided who to vote for because I like to be in the know. I make darn sure I know who I'm voting for," she said. "This year, politics is pretty dirty, and I'm basing my choice on previous experience versus what dirty laundry comes out."

Grassroots and social media campaigning is certainly helping Chad Cobb, a Democrat running for Georgia House District 26.

"I'm not doing signs because I haven't had financing as far as getting those, but I do hope to do a radio ad and newspaper ad the week before Election Day," he said. "Facebook is a gold mine for campaigning. That's what I started in June knowing I didn't have a Democrat opponent for the primary. After that, I knew I could reach out and talk to the people in my district. It's more of a grass-roots campaign."

For Carol Porter, the Democrat lieutenant governor candidate, social media also is the answer.

"Early voting has changed the way we think about campaigns, and the new dynamic is Facebook, Twitter and all the other ways you reach people where they are," said Liz Flowers, Porter's press secretary. "Websites are a more prominent campaign tool than in the past, and Carol gets up every morning to post something on Facebook and Twitter. It's not something the staff does, which happens in other campaigns. She puts down what is on her mind so people can directly connect to her."

Democrats appear to be trying to repeat their successes of 2008, when Barack Obama's campaign lured voters, especially first-time voters, before Election Day.

GOP nominee for governor Nathan Deal and Democratic candidate Roy Barnes both posted videos to their Facebook pages encouraging supporters to vote early.

Barnes also asks supporters to take a photo of themselves displaying the Georgia Peach voting sticker. The campaign adds the photos to an online album of supporters who went out early.

"I hope that we see many of these," Barnes says in the video, holding up a sticker.

Deal's video, which like Barnes' was also posted to YouTube, tells supporters how to find early voting locations and cheerfully offers an advantage of going early.

"After all, if you go early and get the voting out of the way, you can just fast-forward through all of those bad commercials that my opponent is running," Deal says.

The Democratic Party of Georgia has set up 15 field offices across the state - its most ambitious field program ever - and filled them with people to call registered voters and encourage them to vote early, party spokesman Eric Gray said.

So far, the offices have made more than 100,000 calls statewide. That effort frees up candidates, who are under more strain with the early-voting timetable than the traditional model of nearly everyone voting on the first Tuesday in November.

"This is still pretty new territory we're trying to navigate," Gray said. "The candidates have to be everywhere for six weeks before the election instead of one week."

Member newspapers of the Georgia Newspaper Partnership contributed to this story.

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