Believe it or not, voters have already begun casting their ballots for the 2010 midterm elections. Some states provide daily or weekly updates on the number of early voters and may provide additional information, such as the party registration, gender, race, and age of these voters. I track all of this information here, which is an essential source of information for those who want to know where the candidates potentially stand and what the level of turnout may be.
Statistics are now reported for Maine and North Carolina. These are very preliminary numbers, so no firm conclusions may be drawn yet as to what these numbers mean for the 2010 elections. However, there are some tantalizing tidbits, with Republicans out to an early lead in North Carolina and Democrats holding near even with Republicans in Maine. More statistics will be posted as they become available.
Early voting has dramatically increased in recent years. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of voters who cast their ballot prior to Election Day increased from 20% in 2004 to 30% in 2008. These recent rates are in stark contrast to the 4% who voted early in 1972.
One of the reasons for increased early voting is that states have adopted expansive early voting laws. Generally, states offer two forms of early voting: vote-by-mail and voting at special early voting precincts. States that promote vote-by-mail may do so through "no-excuse" absentee voting, sign ups that allow voters to always receive a mail ballot, and by holding their elections entirely by mail. Notably, Oregon became the first state to adopt all-mail ballot statewide elections by voter initiative in 1998.
Some of these states allow voters to cast their ballot in-person at an election office, and others go one step further by opening special polling places where anyone can vote early. Notably, North Carolina permits same-day voter registration for persons voting early at special polling places, but does not allow it for Election Day voters. Other states may effectively have same-day registration for in-person early voters when their registration and early voting periods overlap.
Another reason for the increased percentage of early voters is that once a state adopts early voting, voters become familiar with the option and early voting rates generally trend upwards. Notably, local jurisdictions in Washington moved to all-mail ballot elections as the percentage of mail ballot voters neared 100%.
What is in store for early voting in 2010? There was a slight retrenchment in the percentage of early voters from 2004 to 2006, when the early voting rate dipped to 18.5%. We might expect this again since midterm and primary voters tend to hold on to their ballots a little longer, perhaps because they want more information because the top of the ballot candidates are not as well-known to them as presidential candidates. However, another important consideration is which states will hold competitive elections and turnout will be higher. Some of the hotly-contested elections are occurring in states with permissive early voting laws, such as California, Colorado, Florida, Oregon, and Washington. Early voting may thus either be even or slightly lower than it was in 2008.
While President Obama performed well among early voters in 2008, it should be noted that in previous elections Republicans generally performed better among early voters as early voters tended to fit a more Republican profile: They tended to be older, better educated, and be composed of fewer minorities. It will be interesting to observe if 2010 will mark a continuation of 2008 or a reversion to previous elections.
UPDATE: I added statistics for Virginia; Cook County, Illinois and Marion County, Indiana. You can view these statistics here: http://elections.gmu.edu/early_vote_2010.html.