By Scott Jacobs

We have reached that pleasant point in the presidential campaign when there is nothing more for the media to report until the votes are counted. That point used to be called Election Day. But early voting has stretched the window out to four weeks––and the prospects are good some states will still be recounting the votes right up to Christmas.

Early voting is having a significant impact on this election. Unfortunately, nobody can accurately say what it is. Michael P. McDonald, an associate professor at George Mason University, is providing daily updates on early voting numbers in every state in the Huffington Post and on his website. One week before Election Day, he reports that over 17.6 million people have already cast their ballots and early voting is on a pace to exceed the 41 million cast in 2008 (out of 132.6 million total votes).

McDonald’s research doesn’t yield much insight into who will win the key swing states of Wisconsin, Virginia, New Hampshire and Ohio. Wisconsin early voting started October 22 and wraps up Friday, but McDonald reports only one in five voters there are expected to cast early ballots. In Virginia and New Hampshire, as well, almost 90 percent of the voters wait for Election Day, and the balance of other votes are mail-in absentee votes. Early voting is important in Ohio. Some 2 million people will vote early there but McDonald cautions in a footnote on his website that county election commissions hold so much power over the Ohio voting procedure that statewide statistics at this point are hard to obtain, and less than reliable.

In five other swing states – Florida, North Carolina, Colorado, Nevada and Iowa – where early voting accounts for 36 to 78 percent of the total vote, trends are emerging that appear to give President Obama a slight advantage:

Early Voting: State by State

Florida – Polling in Florida indicates this is the swing state most likely to tilt toward the Romney camp, but Obama’s vaunted ground game is actively courting early voters in Florida. He has 104 field offices in the state compared to 54 for Romney, and on the first day of in-person early voting Saturday (October 27) Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 34,000 votes.

By Wednesday (October 31), state officials were reporting that some 2.27 million Florida voters (26 percent) have already cast ballots by mail or in person at early voting sites. Among these, Democrats hold a 100,000-vote edge among in person voters, but Republicans are 61,000 votes ahead in mail-in ballots. This is not the whole story, however, because these statistics reflect only party affiliation not actual votes cast and don’t include independents, who make up another 16 percent of the early voters. Four years ago, 4.3 million Florida voters (54 percent) cast their ballot early. Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 360,000 votes in early voting, and Obama won Florida by 227,450 votes. Republicans claim Obama is not pulling out early votes at the same rate as he did four years ago, but he still may gather enough early votes to win the state by a much smaller margin.

North Carolina . . . is another state many pollsters have moved to the “lean Romney” category, perhaps too hastily. Thirty-nine percent of North Carolina voters have already cast early ballots. Almost 50 percent of them are Democrats, only 31 percent are Republicans, and nine out of ten are voting in person at early voting sites, a signal that Obama’s ground troops are winning the turnout game even though he is narrowly losing in the pre-election polls.

The key question is whether these early votes come from “sporadic voters” or people who were going to vote anyway, in which case early voting is just a zero sum game. North Carolina is one state where the Obama ground game is going just as planned, one senior campaign spokesman told Time’s Mark Halperin. “All the data I see says we are getting our sporadics to vote at a higher rate than they are. which, for any Democratic candidate, is a bigger challenge because we have lower propensity voters,” he said. “That’s exactly what we are doing and we feel great about that.”

Colorado . . . A greater percentage of people vote early in Colorado than any other state except Washington and Oregon (which has gone to a 100 percent mail-in ballot). In 2008, 79 percent of Colorado’s 2.4 million ballots were cast before Election Day and President Obama won the state by 215,000 votes. As of Wednesday, one million voters have voted – with slightly more Republicans than Democrats filling out ballots – but one in four Colorado voters identify themselves as independents so Colorado is likely to break along the same lines as the final pre-election polls.

Nevada . . . is another state where early voting is expected to account for 67 percent of all the ballots cast. With 50 percent of the ballots already in, Democrats hold a 44-37 percent advantage over Republicans in early voting, but again, 18 percent of the Nevada voters identify themselves as independents and there is no way to tell which candidate any voter has chosen.

Iowa . . . Roughly 33 percent of Iowa’s 1.5 million voters have already cast their ballots in Iowa, and indications are that President Obama is holding a slight edge among them. Democrats account for 44 percent of the ballots cast, Republicans 32 percent, and independents, who tend to break Democratic, make up 24 percent. As early votes continue to roll in, the chances of a last minute event reversing the early trends diminishes. As a result, Nevada, Colorado and Iowa may already be decided, and so may be the election.

The last hurdle: voter ID

Since the last presidential election, 26 state legislatures have voted to revise their election laws to clamp down on voter fraud. Most of these laws are Republican initiatives to tamp down Democratic turnout, and one popular provision requires voters to bring to the polling booth a state-issued photo ID, an extra step in the voting process that weighs most heavily on the poor and minority voters who often don’t carry a state driver’s license.

A year ago, the Obama campaign warned that the photo-ID requirement might disenfranchise as many as 5 million voters; so over the summer Democrats and civil rights attorneys mounted a legal challenge that led courts in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Texas and South Carolina to delay photo ID requirements until after the November election. The threat of mass voter suppression has disappeared. But the mechanism for challenging voters is in place in most of the battleground states, and Republicans are expected to use it.

Challenged voters will be allowed to cast provisional ballots that will be counted if the outcome is close. If the number of provisional ballots is substantially greater than the winning margin in any state, however, they are likely to be counted––and recounted––many times.

Ohio, Ohio, Ohio

Nowhere is provisional voting likely to play a more critical role than in the pivotal state of Ohio.  Provisional ballots will come not only from voters who are challenged on residency, but voters who requested an absentee ballot but decided instead to vote in person. If 2008 is any guide, that amounts to at least 200,000 votes in a state where 5.7 people are expected to cast ballots.

That figure may grow significantly higher, according to a report in the Cincinnati Inquirer, because the Ohio Secretary of State took the unusual step this year of sending out absentee ballot request forms to all 7 million registered Ohio voters. As of Tuesday (October 30), 1.32 million ballots were requested and all but 64,000 have been returned. As Election Day nears, absentee ballots are likely to exceed 1.8 million, and the prospects are good that at least 100,000 would-be absentee voters will be casting provisional ballots at the polling places.

As a rule, Ohio produces more provisional ballots than any state outside of California – 207,000 in 2008 ­– and only 80 percent are usually deemed valid. If you add another 100,000 to the mix, that’s a game changer in a close election. And the kicker is: Ohio law doesn’t allow state officials to count provisional votes until November 17.

So if it all comes down to Ohio on Election Night, don’t bother to stay up waiting for a winner to be announced. We’re headed down a long, slow stream of molasses filled with lawyers in canoes furiously paddling to get to the Supreme Court. Ah Democracy, you gotta love it.

Stump’s Prediction: So who is going to win? My projection is Obama 271, Romney 267. [See the map for details.] Not a resounding victory, but a fitting one given the divisive campaigns that both candidates ran. If you’d like to make your own prediction, go to the Interactive Electoral Map Contest and enter your projection. The winner gets $500 – real cash, no tax breaks included.

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