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Early voting the new norm 

The Feb. 1 primary for the citywide elections in New Orleans is now less than three weeks away, but early voting starts Saturday (Jan. 18) and continues through Jan. 25. Ever since the municipal election of 2006 (the first after Hurricane Katrina), more and more voters — accounting for nearly 20 percent of the votes cast in some recent elections — are opting to vote early.

  In the old days, early voting was limited to "absentee ballots," which required voters to sign affidavits stating they planned to be out of town on Election Day. Back then, the percentage of voters casting early ballots was often negligible. An absentee turnout above 3 percent was considered huge.

  Before the year 2000, the Secretary of State's office could forecast Election Day turnout with amazing accuracy based solely on absentee voting numbers. No longer. Nowadays, early voting is more a matter of convenience than a bellwether of Election Day turnout — and voters like that convenience in ever-increasing numbers.

  In response to what appears to be growing voter demand for early voting, Secretary of State Tom Schedler announced last week the addition of a fourth site for early voting in New Orleans — at the state's Regional Transportation Management Center, 10 Veterans Memorial Blvd., in Lakeview. The other three locations are New Orleans City Hall, the Algiers Courthouse, and the Chef Menteur Voting Machine Warehouse in eastern New Orleans. Unlike the three traditional early voting sites, the Lakeview site will open on Saturdays only during the early voting period — from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Jan. 18 and 25.

  The increase in early voting also forces candidates to adjust their strategies.

  "It changes everything, especially in a short campaign," says pollster Silas Lee, who has been surveying New Orleans voters since the 1980s. "It changes the timing, because you now have to have a get-out-the-vote effort for early voting as well as for Election Day. It changes the messaging, because a candidate now has to get his or her message out much earlier and sustain it, which means it also changes campaign fundraising.

  "Candidates have to get their money early and make sure they have enough to stay on the air. In the past, campaigns tended to have peaks and valleys. You can't afford valleys any more."

  Lee and campaign consultant Gregory Rigamer, who is advising Mayor Mitch Landrieu's campaign, agree that most early voters are "chronic voters" who tend to vote in every election. Candidates who can afford to do the research can identify likely early voters — and tailor messages to them.

  "These folks were always going to vote, but now they take care of that responsibility early," Rigamer says. "In a short campaign like the one we're seeing now, that tends to play into the hands of an incumbent because the window of opportunity for a challenger to get his or her message out to those early voters is really small."

  Early voting first spiked in the mayoral primary of 2006, when it accounted for nearly 20 percent of the votes cast. The vast majority of those voters were displaced African-Americans who wanted to make sure they voted in the first citywide election after Katrina.

  What appeared at the time to be a post-hurricane spike quickly became the new norm. The percentage of votes cast early in major elections since then has ranged from nearly 16 percent to almost 20 percent.

  "This forces candidates to adjust," Lee says. "You cannot ignore that many voters, and you have to find a way to target them."

  Strategically, candidates also have to rethink the timing of their media. "To the extent that a candidate wants to deliver an attack in the final two weeks, or some other important message, that message won't reach a lot of voters in time because they will have already cast their ballots," Rigamer says. "Candidates definitely have to take this into account when devising their strategies because of the sheer numbers involved in early voting."

  One of the oldest truisms in politics is "Timing is everything." Thanks to early voting, that's becoming truer than ever.

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