Parties seek edge via head start at ballot box

Last week, she walked into the Gwinnett County elections office and was back out within 10 minutes, casting her ballot a full month before the Nov. 2 election.

“If I wait until the last day, something can happen and maybe I won’t get to vote,” said Chewning, a bookkeeper from Lawrenceville. “I had made up my mind, straight Republican.”

The benefit of early voting has proven clear to voters, with somewhere between a third and a half of Georgia voters expected to cast their ballots before Election Day largely because of the convenience.

What is less clear is whether the relatively new practice helps Democrats or Republicans more. Still, candidates and officials in both parties are experimenting with strategies to grab as many early votes as possible.

That doesn’t mean buses of supporters rolling up to election offices, at least not yet. But many early voters report getting “robo calls” from candidates, automated messages urging them to vote before Election Day, and plenty of fliers in their mailboxes.

And candidates ranging from the two well-known men vying for governor to those running for local county offices have used Facebook and Twitter to send supporters messages about voting early.

“I’ve had several messages, all the time, on my voice mail, saying, ‘I’m running for this, please go vote,’ ” said Faye Ward, a billing analyst from Lithonia who voted early in DeKalb County. “I have to say, it did remind me.”

Others, such as Henry Coleman, a retired shipping worker from Augusta, needed no reminding. He decided to vote last week at the Augusta Municipal Building because he was already downtown and he knew his mind was made up.

“I’ve been knowing it for a long time,” Coleman said.

Voters like that — who already planned to vote and knew who they would vote for — are the ones both parties have targeted so far with early voting efforts. Democrats and Republicans alike are trying to take advantage of the six-week window to get as many supporters to the polls as they can.

The struggle will be to figure out how to reach beyond those expected supporters and get the more on-the-fence voters to cast ballots early, said Alan Abramowitz, an elections expert and political science professor at Emory University.

It isn’t easy. Undecided voters tend to pay less attention to the machinations of the campaign.

That means candidates have to determine the best time to shift from mobilizing their base to trying to reach those would-be supporters and convince them that they are the right fit, Abramowitz said.

“The truly undecided voters tend to wait until the last minute to make up their minds,” Abramowitz said. “Those are the people who can end up deciding elections, especially in a close race like the one for governor.”

Democrats appear to be trying to repeat their successes of 2008, when Barack Obama’s campaign lured voters, especially first-time voters, before Election Day.

The Democratic Party of Georgia has set up 15 field offices across the state — its most ambitious field program ever — and filled them with people to call registered voters and encourage them to vote early, party spokesman Eric Gray said.

So far, the offices have made more than 100,000 calls statewide. That effort frees up candidates, who are under more strain with the early voting timetable than the traditional model of nearly everyone voting on the first Tuesday in November.

“This is still pretty new territory we’re trying to navigate,” Gray said. “The candidates have to be everywhere for six weeks before the election instead of one week.”

That is especially true for U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall of Macon, whose district is among the most Republican-leaning to have a Democratic congressman. His re-election race against state Rep. Austin Scott, a Republican from Tifton, is among the most hotly contested in the nation.

Marshall’s campaign is relying on the party to put out the calls while the candidate focuses on crisscrossing the district and meeting as many voters as possible as early as possible.

Last week, that meant homecoming events in Macon. Other times, he shows up at small community events or churches. He also gets recognized when he is just out and about, spokesman Doug Moore said.

And every time, he encourages people to vote early. In his 2006 and 2008 campaigns, Marshall actually got more early votes than votes on Election Day, Moore said.

“Rather than letting the voters come to us, we have to go to them,” Moore said. “Then when people say they support you, you can say, ‘Great, go vote tomorrow.’ ”

Scott has also made an effort to get to know voters personally, especially since he is a new face to some in the district, campaign spokesman Sam Ray said. Still, some voters know Scott from when he walked across the state before giving up on his bid for governor, as well as his 14 years in the General Assembly.

His campaign has undertaken its own massive effort on the phones, making 25,000 calls this week and last — the most by any GOP congressional candidate in the Southeast. Scott also uses Facebook and Twitter to remind voters they could cast their votes early.

Candidates and campaigns don’t want to reveal too much more of their strategy because everyone is trying to determine the best way to capitalize on early voting, said Gabriel Sterling, a Gwinnett-based political consultant who works mostly with Republicans.

Those strategies can change, anyway, since early voting results can basically be a cheap way to poll your supporters to see whether they are enthused enough to go vote.

In the Marshall-Scott race, for instance, 5,343 people had voted by the end of Thursday, Sterling said. About 2,000 of them were Republicans and 1,500 were Democrats, Sterling said — meaning Scott is ahead, so far, at least in voter intensity.

Those sorts of results are why Sterling encourages candidates to reach out to voters year-round so that by the time early voting opens, they can’t wait to get to the polls.

“You build the coalitions, you get people feeling invested in the campaign,” Sterling said. “You have to be talking to people all the time, to engage them, because those are the people who are going to make up their mind early.”

Candidates with more ground to cover also have tapped into social media platforms online in a bid to find the supporters. GOP candidate for governor Nathan Deal and Democratic candidate Roy Barnes both posted videos to their Facebook pages encouraging supporters to vote early.

Barnes also asks supporters to take a photo of themselves displaying the Georgia Peach voting sticker. The campaign adds the photos to an online album of supporters who went out early.

“I hope that we see many of these,” Barnes says in the video, holding up a sticker.

Deal’s video, which like Barnes’ was also posted to YouTube, tells supporters how to find early voting locations and cheerfully offers an advantage of going early.

“After all, if you go early and get the voting out of the way, you can just fast-forward through all of those bad commercials that my opponent is running,” Deal says.

TV ads will likely be unavoidable in major statewide campaigns, which are expected to ramp up now with early voting and, as usual, blast viewers in the final week before Election Day.

But if the campaigns end up bombarding early voters with more phone calls or new fliers, they risk offending the very people who heeded their early call.

Roberta Boyd of Valdosta is among them. The 80-year-old woman said she found it easier to vote early than by mail since she will be out of the state on Nov. 2.

But even before she voted early she thought she had received “too much” campaign literature, especially since she said she decided who to vote for during the last presidential election.

If it keeps coming?

“I’ll be really mad when I get it when I’ve already voted,” Boyd said.

The state political parties should have the sorts of databases that avoid that type of mistake, Abramowitz said. They already have the technical savvy.

It’s whether they can deal with the huge number of voters — whether out of party loyalty or mere convenience — who decided to already cast their ballots.

There has long been a contingent of people who voted early, either in person or by mail. For decades, though, those voters had to give a reason, such as being ill or not being in town on Election Day.

Georgia’s law changed two years ago. For the first time, any registered voter could cast a ballot ahead of time without giving a reason.

Statewide, 53 percent of voters did just that in 2008, according to data from the secretary of state’s office. Nearly 122,000 people voted early in Gwinnett County alone — about 13,000 people shy of the population of Savannah.

This year, Georgia will be among 24 states offering some sort of early voting, according to the National Association of Secretaries of State.

Already, Gwinnett and neighboring DeKalb County have seen more than 200 early voters a day. By Thursday, the last full day data was available, that translated into 2,224 people in Gwinnett and 2,041 in DeKalb, two of the state’s largest counties.

“It will only grow as we get closer to Election Day,” said Maxine Daniels, DeKalb’s elections director.

Early voting got off to a strong start in Whitfield County, but it has since slowed to a trickle.

More than 30 people voted on Sept. 17, the first day of early voting, election officials said. By noon Wednesday, a total of 214 people had voted.

Among them was 55-year-old Pamila Whitfield, who said she voted early only because she was about to be hospitalized and worried she wouldn’t get another chance to cast her ballot.

“It’s still early. I think a lot of people are still trying to find out more about the issues and the candidates,” said Whitfield, who lives in Rocky Face. “I worry about missing something by voting this early, I really do.”

Convenience trumps that worry, which few early voters seem to share. Across the state, many voters commented on preferring to vote on their own time and avoiding Election Day lines.

For some early voters, casting their ballots had become an errand to add to the daily list of shopping or dropping off the dry cleaning.

“It’s hard for me to get out and about, and since I was in town, I decided to vote,” said Dan Carlstrom of Floyd County, adding that campaign issues did spark his attention, too.

Most counties have just one early voting spot this far out from Election Day, although Fulton County, as the state’s largest county, has several. By about Oct. 25, though, most counties will add several satellite polling places to handle the expected surge of voters.

For Chewning, who voted in Gwinnett on her lunch break, the opportunity was more than welcome.

“This way, I made sure I got in and got my vote counted,” she said. “That’s the way it should be.”

Staff writer Aaron Gould Sheinin, Susan McCord of The Augusta Chronicle, Charles Oliver of The Daily Citizen in Dalton, Phillip Ramati of The (Macon) Telegram, Kara Ramos of The Valdosta Daily Times and Ryan Smith of the Rome News-Tribune contributed to this article.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.