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Millions of Americans Can Start Voting Early

Some observers say absentee ballots and preelection decisions can affect candidates’ momentum

Early Voting Minnesota

Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune via AP

A poll worker speaks with a voter as the Minneapolis Early Voting Center opened.

The Iowa caucuses are more than a week away, but millions of Americans are already able to vote.

Early voting in the crush of Super Tuesday states that hold primaries on March 3 amounts to a parallel campaign for the Democratic nomination. While much of the focus is on who will come out on top in the traditional first four voting states, early voting will allow a much broader swath of voters to play a key role in picking the nominee.

In Minnesota, in-person early voting began Jan. 17. Vermont's deadline to mail out its absentee ballots was the same day. Many of the 14 Super Tuesday states will offer some form of early voting between now and mid-February.

These states will test the organizational strength of the White House hopefuls. The campaigns must balance the demands of the first four states — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — while also making sure to target potential supporters in the Super Tuesday states that follow.

The biggest early voting state, California, will mail ballots to more than 12 million voters starting Feb. 3, the same day as the Iowa caucuses, though not all of those voters will get a Democratic primary ballot. Colorado, North Carolina and Texas, which offer combinations of mail-in and in-person early voting, are also likely to have a high percentage of early voters, said Michael McDonald, a voting expert who directs the United States Elections Project at the University of Florida.

It's difficult to predict how many people will take advantage of early voting, McDonald said. While early voting offers an opportunity for campaigns to ensure their most intense supporters cast ballots early, many primary voters will wait until they begin seeing the results in earlier voting states in case their preferred candidates drop out. At least one state, Minnesota, gives voters an option to retrieve their ballot and change their votes up to a week before Election Day.

California has by far the largest population of would-be early voters. Paul Mitchell, who runs Political Data Inc., a nonpartisan organization that analyzes and sells voter data, predicts about a quarter of the state's eventual Democratic electorate will have cast ballots by the time Nevada holds its caucuses on Feb. 22. He projects that will increase to 40 percent by the time South Carolina votes on Feb. 29.

"If you have people who are with you now, you need to bank those votes,” he said. “If you're running a campaign and can turn out 1 million voters on Election Day, if you can get 200,000 of them to vote early, that reduces your workload."

In Colorado, where everyone is mailed a ballot, state officials expect 60 percent of voters to send their ballots back early. In North Carolina, about a quarter of people could vote early, McDonald predicted.

While early voting is an important component of campaign strategy, some experts and campaign veterans doubt its overall effect on a race's outcome. Robby Mook, who managed Democrat Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign, said the voters who are likely to vote early are a campaign's most hard-core supporters who would have supported that candidate no matter what.

"You're often cannibalizing from what you were going to get on Election Day anyway,” he said. “The question every campaign, if it's honest, is asking itself is: ‘How many new votes have I turned out?’ “

But other observers say early voting can affect candidates’ momentum. Take California, which takes weeks to finish counting its ballots. The first reported votes on election night will be a reflection of the votes that came in earliest. If a candidate does particularly well with those voters, he or she could get an initial boost of energy, even if the results change as later votes roll in in the following weeks.

"If campaigns can use the mechanics of the election to drive their votes to get cast in those earlier tranches, you can have a greater impact on the national narrative,” Mitchell said.

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