DURHAM, N.C. -- On a drizzly Saturday outside Durham, almost 1300 residents waited for ten to forty-five minutes outside Southwest Elementary School to cast their ballots. Voters came and went leisurely, many making a stop at the polls part of their weekend errands. One woman had jogged over and bounced on the toes of her sneakers while she waited. A number of people brought their kids, either as a civics lesson or simply because school was out.
In a state where residents have been going to the polls since mid-October, the most obvious advantage to early voting is time. Bad weather, the stomach flu, a glitch in the machine--with two weeks to cast ballots, none of these become sufficient reasons to limit votes on election day. In Durham County alone, more than 50,000 people have already voted--a whopping one-third of registered voters. Because North Carolina allows residents who are voting early to register and vote on the same day, the eventual number of voters will likely exceed even projected totals.
Of course, early voting alone doesn't explain the record numbers of ballots cast in Durham County this year. Like many other factors in this election, Barack Obama seems to be the reason for the turnout--both the candidate and the campaign.
"This is one of the most popular presidential elections ever," said Chuck, who had voted two days before but was waiting for wife. He was wearing an Obama hat and grinning at voters as they left the polls. "You can feel the electricity."
Carol Rist, an Obama volunteer passing out a Democratic slate, said many people stopped to chat on their way out. "Most people seem happy, and African-Americans seem downright giddy," she said. "One woman told me she'd gone to her family's ancestral home, collected soil from the ground where her grandparents had walked, and rubbed a little bit of it on her ballot. She wanted them to share in this experience with her."
It's no secret that Durham is a blue county, and that the overwhelming majority of African-American voters are supporting Obama. But the Obama campaign is also making a concentrated effort to translate that enthusiasm into early ballots.
Canvassers for Obama have been instructed to drive voters immediately to the polls if they are available and show an interest. This weekend and last, at least one campaign office held a neighborhood barbecue and encouraged voters to walk en masse from the grill to the polls. The campaign has flooded TV and radio with public service announcements, reminding the audience that polls are open and they can already vote. A paid "Vote for Change" link with information about early voting pops up first in almost any election-related Google search.
"Early voting has hugely increased the time we can be productively engaging voters," said Ted Benson, who helps run the Obama office near Southwest Elementary School. Despite the rain, his office was passing out walk lists and granola bars to volunteers. Another half-dozen were on the telephone.
In theory, early voting raises all vote totals, giving people of all political leanings more opportunity to make their voices heard. But two weeks instead of one day to get out the vote, it would seem that the campaign with the ground game--and the cash--to mobilize supporters has the advantage.