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Originally published Sunday, October 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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More voters just mailing ballots in

The presidential debate had barely ended Wednesday night when Kristin Marshall had her ballot on her lap, pen in hand, ready to vote. Three friends, all supporters...

FORT COLLINS, Colo. — The presidential debate had barely ended Wednesday night when Kristin Marshall had her ballot on her lap, pen in hand, ready to vote.

Three friends, all supporters of Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, had their ballots, too.

"Obama's the second one down — don't accidentally pick the first," said Marshall, 27, a reference to the ballot placement of Sen. John McCain, Obama's Republican opponent, as her living room of Obama supporters erupted in laughter.

The traditional American vote — a solitary moment behind a black curtain in a booth, civics in secret — was never thus.

With Election Day less than three weeks away, hundreds of thousands of voters nationwide already have flocked to the polls. Voters began casting ballots this past week in Illinois and in North Carolina, a toss-up state. In the next week, those states will be joined by the campaign battlegrounds of Florida, New Mexico and Nevada.

Experts predict up to a third of all voters this year will register their choices early, in person or through the mail, up from a fifth in 2004. History suggests most will be committed backers of McCain or Obama who would not change their votes if they waited a couple of weeks.

As those supporters vote, candidates cross them off their target lists — enabling campaigns to shift their efforts to those who remain on the fence.

New political chemistry

Campaign workers and elections experts say that having so many people voting from home alters the chemistry of the election.

"It used to be in the traditional concept of a campaign, there was a persuasion phase — vote for us and against the other candidate, then a window before Election Day to get out the vote and close the deal," said Doug Chapin, an elections expert at the Pew Center on the States, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization. "My guess is that in the 21st century, the campaign consultants of greatest value to campaigns are going to be the ones able to predict not just who people will vote for, but when and how."

Mail-in ballots

In other closely fought states, mostly in the Midwest and the South, data on mail-in (sometimes called absentee) voters are imprecise, but the numbers seem to be far fewer than in Colorado, where nearly half the registered voters have requested mail-in ballots.

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In North Carolina, for example, state election officials said there had been 141,148 requests for ballots by mail so far. Florida keeps no statewide count, though in Miami-Dade — the county with the most registered voters in the state — about 10 percent of registered voters had requested ballots.

In Nevada, another state up for grabs, about 10 percent of voters typically vote absentee, and election officials there said they expected no change from that pattern. Virginia, also in play, requires voters who cannot come to the polls on Election Day to provide a reason a mail-in ballot is needed, a requirement eliminated in Colorado in 1992 and one that tends to limit the mail-in vote. In Ohio, this is the first general election where anyone can request a mail-in ballot without explaining why.

Republicans dominated early voting in 2000 and 2004. A University of Arizona study found that President Bush won more than 60 percent of the early vote in each of those elections.

This year, it's Democrats who look more energized. The Associated Press reports more than a half-million people have voted already in Georgia, a longshot pickup for Obama, and that many come from Democratic-leaning Atlanta.

Recent SurveyUSA polls show Obama leading by 6 percentage points among Georgian early voters, by 18 points in Ohio and by 34 points in Iowa.

In Ohio, early voting has come with controversy and a court battle over 200,000 registered voters whose identities, Republicans say, haven't been verified properly. In North Carolina, it arrived Thursday in some precincts to long lines of voters, according to reports.

And in Georgia, a federal judge denied a request by voting-rights groups to stop the state from asking new voters to prove their identities and citizenship, saying Thursday that halting the checks could harm the integrity of the election.

Obama's campaign believes the early-voting group includes undecideds who jumped off the fence during Obama's current surge in the polls.

New turnout tool

Marshall, the debate-and-vote party hostess in Colorado, said she was voting by mail for the first time partly because the Obama campaign, for which she has volunteered, had pushed it hard as a tool to increase turnout.

"I have the time to go wait in line at the polling place, but the person behind me in line maybe doesn't," Marshall said. "They might have only half an hour to wait on line at lunch break, and if they can't get through the line, they may not vote."

With nearly half of Colorado's registered voters requesting ballots by mail, the Obama and McCain campaigns have been compelled to kick-start their get-out-the-vote efforts — and devise new and imaginative ones.

Volunteers working for McCain and other Republican candidates are hand-delivering information packets to 35,000 households in Weld County, east of Fort Collins, that have voters who requested mail-in ballots. The county, traditionally a Republican stronghold, has one of the highest rates of mail balloting in the state and is regarded by both campaigns as among a few counties that could tip the state blue or red.

The Obama campaign, meanwhile, made a big effort last week to encourage debate-and-vote parties like the one at Marshall's home here in Larimer County, another pivotal county with high numbers of mail balloting.

Choosing the moment to sit down to fill in the little ovals indicating one's choices, and how to return the ballot after that, have also become a consideration for some mail-in voters.

Sue Friede, an office manager in Greeley, said she had her ballot ready to go but did not trust the United States mail, so her vote for Obama would be hand-delivered to the election offices.

"I'm paranoid," Friede said. "I just feel like every vote is so important this year you can't take a chance."

Penny Cecil, the co-owner of a small business in Greeley, plans to vote for McCain, as does her husband, Bill. They are deliberately waiting.

"We haven't even opened them up," she said of the ballots. "We're going to wait until closer to the election because then it still seems more like you're really voting."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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