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Is Early Voting A 'Quiet Revolution?'


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, Apple just unveiled its new iPad Mini, but it's not the only company trying to tempt you with new gadgets. Our digital lifestyle expert, Mario Armstrong, is going to stop by to tell us what's worth checking out. That's a little later.

But first we want to talk about changes in the way we vote. Election Day is coming. It is less than two weeks away now, but many Americans have already cast their ballots. Thirty-four states and Washington, D.C. allow some form of early voting and those include some hotly contested battlegrounds like Florida, Ohio, and Nevada.

The Pew Center on the States estimates that as many of 35 percent of all votes will come in before Election Day. We wanted to talk more about this so we've called Paul Gronke. He is the director of the Early Voting Information Center. That's a nonpartisan research firm that looks at early voting trends across the country. He's also a political science professor at Reed College in Oregon.

Also with us is Lenny McAllister. He's a commentator, a frequent guest on this program, and a Republican strategist. He's also the author of the book "Spoken Thoughts of an Amalgamated Advocate in Today's America." Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.



MARTIN: Professor Gronke, let me start with you. I think that people have thought traditionally of early voting as something that only a certain group of people do, a small group of people do, like business people who know they're going to travel on Election Day, or perhaps military service members. Was that once true? And how has that changed over the years?

GRONKE: Well, I've called this a quiet revolution in American elections. You know, we all remember the 2000 election and the many changes that occurred after that event, but much more quietly early voting has been really taking over in many states and moving across the country.

Prior to about 1975 there was really just traditional absentee voting, as you said, Michel, military service personnel, people away in college, residential care facilities such as nursing homes. California started no-excuse absentee balloting in '78, where you no longer had to provide some sort of reason.

At this point, depending on the election and the state, it could be anywhere from 15 to 20 percent, up to, of course, Oregon and Washington, where 100 percent of those ballots come in by mail and we don't have polling places here anymore.

MARTIN: So why are more people choosing to vote early?

GRONKE: Well, we have this very complicated quilt. You know, we think of one election here in the United States but I'm sure, as Lenny could tell you, as any strategist, it's not one election, it's 50 elections and the District of Columbia. So in some places - Colorado, for example, is virtually a vote-by-mail state at this point. It'll probably be 75 or 80 percent.

Lots of people do vote-by-mail ballots. Down in Florida, one of the battlegrounds you referred to, it's about a one-third, one-third, one-third, where one-third of the ballots will come in by mail, one-third of the voters will show up early to vote in person, and then one-third of the voters will wait until Election Day to cast that ballot.

MARTIN: Lenny McAllister, one of the reasons we wanted to call you is that, number one, you're a strategist but you've also been a candidate yourself. How did you or how do you think about early voting? And has that changed over the course of time?

MCALLISTER: I think the 2012 election may be different. Generally speaking, the parties look at early voting as something that benefits Democrats, that Republicans try to withstand, if you will. And not necessarily in a voter suppression type of way but withstand in regards to the Democrats will probably take an early lead and we need to make sure that our folks get out to vote, particularly within the last 72 hours, and particularly on Election Day.

We are counting on the traditional older voter, that traditional demographic that always comes to the polls during the primary season and the general election, and we need them to come out to make sure that we can withstand the early voting deficit that we're going to face at the total number and then be able to overcome that and win at the very end.

MARTIN: OK, hold on. Let me stop you right there. You're saying that Republicans assume that Democrats have an advantage in early voting. Why is that?

MCALLISTER: I think that when you look at some of the organizations that oftentimes rally around early voting, you look at a lot of urban communities, they will do a lot of early voting. If it's available on Sunday, you will see buses go from church straight to the polling booths. So that you have an opportunity for those that don't have transportation, that have to use these same vans to go to church, they could be taken to the polls.

It's one of the few times throughout the week where busy family members may be able to pick up an elderly family member or a family member that is disabled. They pick them up, they go to church, they go to breakfast, they go to the polls that one Sunday or those two Sundays that early voting is available. And generally speaking, when you're talking about those type of environments, those type of voters, they're in urban environments, they're in urban districts, and they're generally going to lean Democratic.

MARTIN: Interesting. OK, Professor Gronke, do you cosign that? I mean we do note that the Obama campaign has made a big push towards early voting. President Obama says he plans to vote this week and First Lady Michelle Obama has already mailed in her ballot. And the campaign posted pictures of her doing so. Do you think Lenny has a point?

GRONKE: Lenny, what state do you live in?

MCALLISTER: I ran for office in the state of North Carolina but I've lived in North Carolina, I've lived in the D.C. area, and I've lived in the city of Chicago...

GRONKE: Well, then, that's fascinating. North Carolina actually is a very interesting state because some states, it is the early in-person - the people who show up in person - who are mobilized in urban communities such as, you know, Raleigh and Charlotte and Rocky Mount, the other areas in North Carolina. Absolutely right.

Big move in 2008, African-Americans in the Southeast, heavy levels of enthusiasm for Barack Obama. But I would differ if you look across the country. Republicans have done better traditionally in the by-mail, the absentee balloting. And so California, when it was more of a Republican stronghold, had lots of absentee balloting.

Out in Colorado, some of these other states, Republicans have very good vote-by-mail or absentee lists. Republicans still mobilize these by-mail ballots. Democrats were a little bit later to the game, but they mobilized very effectively the in-person early voting exactly how Lenny describes.

MARTIN: We're talking about the ins and outs of early voting with Professor Paul Gronke. He is the director of the nonpartisan Early Voting Information Center. Also with us is a frequent guest on our program, Republican strategist and commentator Lenny McAllister.

Lenny McAllister, you did raise the word voter suppression, so I will just talk about that here. Democrats have - and progressives - have really cried foul this year over the efforts by mainly Republican governors and legislatures to institute restrictions on both early voting and registration efforts requiring new forms of ID and also trying to curtail early voting.

The courts have generally not allowed those efforts to go forward in this election cycle. The Democrats and the progressives have argued that the intent here is to try to keep people from voting who tend to vote Democratic. And I'd like to ask if that is true.

MCALLISTER: Well, I think the efforts are abhorrent. I absolutely do. I think that we can have voter validation without having voter suppression. And I think that goes back to how the laws are written, the timeframes in regards to how we're going to implement these laws, and how we're going to embrace some communities that may be at risk but that have participated in elections and participated in the American society as citizens for decades.

And I think that as Republicans, moving forward in a bipartisan fashion, we can validate voter ID in a way that does not continue to slide towards voter suppression.

MARTIN: OK. Well, point taken. How would you, as a strategist, want to take advantage of early voting patterns, given that your view is that this can slide toward voter suppression and intimidation? How would you legitimately take advantage of what you know about early voting patterns in order to compensate for that on your side?

MCALLISTER: Well, this year would have been a great opportunity, where you have Governor Romney, who did exceptionally well in the first presidential debate. You still have a tough economy everywhere. You have sketchy, at best, and pessimistic, at worst, economic numbers coming out.

If the Romney camp was more entrenched in dealing with Ohio and Pennsylvania right after the Romney victory in that first presidential debate, they could have pushed to have more of their base towards an early voting model. They could have pushed that undecided and that influential voter to the polls at that point of time, rather than allowing the second and third debate to be impressionable on those same voters to a point where President Obama, who had a big lead in Pennsylvania that's not as big now, can have a chance to re-convince them, hey, you gave me a double-digit lead for a reason.

This would have been a good year for the Republicans to push early voting in Pennsylvania at the presidential level after that first debate and get them thinking about voting as soon as they possibly could.

MARTIN: Professor Gronke, what do you say about that?

GRONKE: Well, first, I want to chime in with Lenny. I mean that was an amazingly bipartisan statement, I think, about voter suppression and access to the ballots. I really commend him for that, and I would also like to hear - I mean I couldn't have said it any better, and he said it very effectively.

I think he's also right. Look, mobilizing the early vote is a longer, more expensive effort. My information is that the Romney campaign is far better positioned than the McCain campaign was in 2008. The Republicans have learned from the Democrats. I don't know how effective some of their ground game is here. It sounds, from Lenny's perspective, not as effective as he would like it to be, but he's exactly right. You want to be ready and poised.

Think of voter mobilization as a long list of 170 million names. That's literally what it is. Both sides have these long lists of identifying us with actually hundreds of pieces of information about us, including whether we have a cat or whether we're a member of the NRA and all this information. Included on that is how we tend to vote, whether it's early, absentee, so think of it as a long list and you're checking off names, and you want to check off those names. You want to move on to the next person. So I think both campaigns have to be positioned to try to move on that long two-week mobilization effort.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, do you think early voting is changing our politics in some way that we are not fully aware of yet?

GRONKE: I think if we could have a national conversation, maybe putting Lenny on one of these commissions to talk about this, I think it could be done in a way that would satisfy both sides, so I'm very much on the same page as him.

If we could have a early voting period that perhaps is not extended as North Carolina - two months - maybe more like two weeks. You know, both campaigns are in the final stretch now and I think two weeks of intensive conversation about something as important as electing the next president of the United States is very reasonable.

MARTIN: Professor Paul Gronke is the director of the Early Voting Information Center. That is a nonpartisan research firm that looks at early voting trends across the country. He also teaches political science at Reed College.

Also with us was Republican strategist and commentator Lenny McAllister, a frequent guest on this program. He joined us from Stafford, Virginia.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

MCALLISTER: Thank you.

GRONKE: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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