Election Day used to be the day.
Months of advertisements, mailers and knocking on doors would crescendo into a single day where voters would head to the polls and cast their ballots.
But now, with early voting on the rise across the country, Election Day is seen by some as the end of a weekslong election wave, rather than a quick culmination on a single, frantic day.
By late October, many Kansans, including those in Johnson and Wyandotte counties, can start voting early. That gives candidates less time to court voters on the campaign trail. But with more adamant supporters casting their ballots early, candidates can focus on others who might still be swayed or have yet to make up their minds.
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“For a campaign it’s a strategic advantage,” said Patrick Miller, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Kansas. “You can put a little bit of effort into making sure that your hardcore supporters get out and you can do that effort before Election Day.”
Thirty-seven states, including Kansas and the swing states of Florida, North Carolina and Ohio, now have some sort of pre-Election Day voting.
“It certainly changes the way people campaign,” said Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams, whose office oversees that state’s elections. Colorado mails ballots to every eligible voter and opens early polling places in October.
Although anecdotal evidence shows that in many states Democrats stand to benefit most from early voting, Bob Hall said the pre-Election Day voters tend to be those most enthusiastic about a candidate, regardless of party. Hall is executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan voting rights advocacy group.
In North Carolina, that meant more African-Americans were likely to vote early in 2008 and 2012, when President Barack Obama ran. But in recent off-year elections, it was the white Republican voter who was more drawn to cast ballots early.
The Obama campaigns were so effective at identifying early voters that in 2008, “we knew going into Election Day we had won” in Florida, said Steve Schale, Obama’s state director that year. Among their strategies: Having surrogates lead marches and rallies to early polling spots.
This year, it’s tough to tell who will get the early voters. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have solid cores of support, polls find, but their negatives remain at historically high levels.
The first debate, scheduled for Sept. 26, is crucial to the early voting push.
Missouri offers absentee voting, but no early voting. Kansas has roughly two weeks of early voting in an attempt to keep lines shorter come Election Day. Voters can either vote at an early polling place or vote by mail.
In Johnson County, there’s hope that a large number of voters could cast ballots well before Nov. 8. The county has six early voting locations that open Oct. 24.
Ronnie Metsker, Johnson County’s election commissioner, said it’s possible that around 160,000 voters could take advantage of the two weeks of early voting. More than 390,000 have registered to vote already in the county, he said, and that number should grow past 400,000 in the coming weeks. The county’s already at an all-time high for voter registration.
“That’s kind of a mile marker, I think,” Metsker said.
Rep. Barbara Bollier, a Johnson County Republican running for the state’s 7th District Senate seat, said the compressed time line can make it difficult for competing campaigns to stage effective attack ads.
That, Bollier said, is a benefit of the early voting cycle in Kansas.
“I think you see a lot less of that now,” Bollier said.
Instead of focusing just on Election Day, Megan England, a Democrat running against Bollier, said her campaign is using the start of early voting as a deadline.
“Part of our campaign is to encourage people to vote through advance ballot and encourage people to vote at the polls,” England said. “Putting all your eggs in one basket on Nov. 8 is risky for a campaign.”
Despite its popularity in Johnson County, early voting is not nearly as big a factor in Wyandotte County.
Bruce Newby, the election commissioner in Wyandotte County, said he was disappointed by low turnout in past elections. The county has two early voting locations.
“That first week is almost dead,” Newby said. “I’m spending a lot of money paying for election workers and nobody’s coming. It calls into question, from a cost standpoint, why am I even doing it?”
The Republican Party identifies voters nationwide with scores ranging from zero to 100. Among the items rated are whether the voter is likely to support a Republican and what issues matter most.
Republican volunteers are dispatched to get in touch with the potential early voters. Starting in June, they visited their homes or made phone calls. If controversies about Trump arose, the GOP volunteers were ready to discuss them.
They pay particular attention to trends in the scores over time. The scores are updated every two weeks, so volunteers will return, usually in the evening, which party officials have determined is the best time to reach voters. So far this election cycle, they’ve already knocked on at least 244,594 doors in North Carolina and 403,726 in Florida.
Clinton’s campaign has been working in swing states since the late April primaries, devising a plan to take advantage of all the methods a voter could use to vote.
They’re using their research to identify early voters, then contacting them to urge signing up for absentee ballots or be aware of early voting procedures.
In states such as North Carolina, Florida, Nevada and Colorado, the Clinton team is working with county officials and local governments to be sure there are early voting locations. Next, they contact voters to tell them where those locations are.
The Election Day ritual of voting in person is fading for some, said Michael Smith, a political science professor at Emporia State University. And that shift has changed the rhythm for political campaigns.
“In particular, I think that a lot of younger voters, younger and middle aged, it’s just something you do,” Smith said of early voting.
In Kansas legislative districts, it’s long been a tradition to knock on doors to drum up support. But with early voting, Smith said, politicians run the risk of reaching voters too late.
“This is an area where you have to go higher tech,” he said. “Otherwise at the peak time for knocking on doors, which is the last few weeks before the election, you’re actually going to be knocking on the doors of people who have already voted.”
David Lightman, firstname.lastname@example.org