Voting Begins in Iowa Thursday
Election day begins Thursday across Iowa as the 40 day early voting period gets underway. Democrats will observe the day, 40 days before Election Day proper, with 17 early voting parties at coffee shops and campaign offices across the state.
Absentee ballots were traditionally a Republican firewall. Back in the days where only shut-ins and overseas military personnel were voting absentee, Republicans lost the election day vote in high-profile races like the 1982 California governorship and a 1988 Florida Senate race, but won the election on absentee ballots.
Iowa was one of the earliest states to allow any voter to vote early for any reason, in 1990. Most states have now followed suit, and West Coast states have absentee voting rates of nearly 50 percent. (Oregon is 100 percent--all voting is by mail.)
Both Iowa parties worked the early vote with massive mailings in the 1990s. Beginning in 2002, the Democratic Party launched an aggressive and targeted field canvass for absentee requests. Statewide, absentee and early voting increased from 21 percent in 2000 to 33 percent in 2004. That compares to the roughly 5 percent absentee rate Iowa saw prior to 1990.
Party canvasses were fortified by parallel efforts by independent 527 organizations in 2004. Literally parallel, in some cases; since the 527s and the parties weren't supposed to coordinate with each other, canvass teams could sometimes be working literally across the street from each other. An exaggeration, but only slightly.
The 527 efforts, discouraged by the Obama campaign, have tapered off dramatically in 2008, and vote by mail requests are down from previous cycles, with just over 100,000 requests in so far according to Secretary of State Michael Mauro. But the change seems more tactical than due to a lack of interest, as evidenced by an increase in the tough to target military and overseas ballot requests, up from 2300 in 2004 to 3200 so far in 2008.
Rather, the change seems to be that Democrats have refocused their efforts this year on in-person early voting at satellite stations and auditor's offices.
Iowa's urban counties have seen heavy satellite voting in past years, but this year expanded petitioning efforts (it only takes 100 signatures to force a site, but the deadline was a week ago) have led to sites in other areas as well. Democrats petitioned for four Wapello County sites, the first satellite sites ever in the county. Tama County will have a site at the Meskwaki Tribal Center, and Buena Vista County will have a site on the Buena Vista College campus.