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Early voting lengthens campaign season, changes candidates’ strategy

James Q. Lynch, CR Gazette –

CEDAR RAPIDS — Early voting, which gets under way in Iowa today, makes casting a ballot easier and, according to supporters, increases turnout.

Voting participation in Iowa traditionally has been high, and in the 2008 presidential election 36 percent of registered voters cast their ballots before Election Day, according to The Associated Press.

All indications are that more Iowans will take advantage of early voting this year. Already, more than 176,000 voters have requested absentee ballots and hundreds of thousands more are expected to vote early in person at the county auditor’s office and satellite voting sites.

“We’re off to the races,” said Chad Olsen of the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office. Turnout in presidential elections has risen from 67 percent in 2000 to 74 percent in 2008, according to the office.

With people starting to vote in September, candidates have to start their campaigns earlier, said Don McDowell, who works for Senate Minority Leader Jerry Behn, R-Boone.

“It certainly makes the campaign season longer,” McDowell said. “Candidates need to engage voters earlier, introduce themselves and get their names and messages out there earlier.

McDowell and Iowa Democratic Party Chairwoman Sue Dvorsky say their candidates have canvassed their districts two and three times.

That gives candidates more opportunities to win voters’ support, Dvorsky said.

“Especially in a redistricting year, you’ve got to make sure people know who you are,” she said.

Some candidates start door-knocking almost as soon as one election is over in order to keep their conversation going with voters.

A 40-day voting window changes campaign strategy, political operatives say.

“The ground game continues right up until the end, but now a candidate establishes a base of support so when they start doing mail and TV and radio it has a foundation of support to land on,” McDowell said.

Regardless of how and when Iowans vote, “a vote is a vote is a vote is a vote whether it happens early or on Election Day,” McDowell said. “An early vote doesn’t count any more than a vote on Election Day.”

The difference, Dvorsky said, is that once candidates lock in their most loyal supporters they can narrow their focus to concentrate on those voters who haven’t requested or returned an absentee ballot, Dvorsky said.

Then it becomes a conversation about what is the most convenient way for a voter to cast a ballot, she said.

So far, the Secretary of State’s Office has received far more absentee ballot requests from Democrats than Republicans. “No party” requests outnumber GOP requests, according to the office’s tally on Tuesday. It has received 176,059 absentee ballot requests with 114,585, or 65 percent, coming from Democrats.

McDowell attributes the difference to cultural differences. Republicans tend to look at Election Day voting as an exercise of their civic responsibility.

“I can’t remember ever voting at the polls,” the twenty-something McDowell said. “But if you talk to my parents, they’ve never not voted at the polls. They joke, ‘It’s the thing to do.’ It’s their social event for the day.

Election Day voting may not be so much a tradition as indecision, said Dvorsky, who described herself as “one of the last Democrats in the state to wrap my mind around voting anywhere other than the polling place on Tuesday morning.”

People who vote at the polls on Election Day are probably those who have stayed undecided or may not be as reliable voters as others, she said.

“I think there are as many reasons to vote in a specific place, at a specific time and way as there are voters,” Dvorsky said.

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