Voting day now lasts for weeks
More states allow people to cast ballots early as way to increase turnout.
Lillian Hernandez cautiously ducked her head inside a voting booth at Houston Community College. She was anxious because she didn't know how to use the new electronic equipment.
"It's my first time. I don't understand anything," she told the poll worker, who spent 15 minutes tutoring her. Later, Ms. Hernandez emerged from the plastic booth, pleased with her journey into democracy. "I'm not going to be able to vote on Tuesday, and I didn't want to miss it," she said.
Across the nation, millions of people like Hernandez are showing up at the polls early, marking one of the biggest changes in modern voting.
From Texas to Hawaii, more than a dozen states are now allowing voters to cast ballots weeks before Election Day as a way to increase voter turnout. While most experts don't think the practice is doing much yet to increase participation, a growing number of people are choosing to enter the voting booth early.
The trend, when combined with the growth in absentee balloting, is moving the nation away from one of the most hallowed traditions in democracy same-day voting. It's also changing the way campaigns are conducted.
Early voting is "probably the fastest-growing trend in American elections because of the convenience," says Doug Lewis, executive direction of the Election Center, a national nonprofit group based in Houston. "Voters love the convenience."
For many states, today marks the official end of early voting. With tight races and critical issues on ballots, turnout is already setting records in some of those areas. About one-third of Texans who go to the polls this year, for instance, will cast ballots early.
In Arizona, 1 out of every 4 voters in Maricopa County is choosing this option. In Nevada, an estimated 60 percent of the electorate will have already voted by election day.
Nationwide, a full 15 percent of Americans may vote early in this midterm election.
Still, voting in advance doesn't necessarily translate into higher turnout. Experts note that most of the people who are voting early would have gone to the polls anyway.
The new practice just allows them to do so at their own convenience. It hasn't been a big magnet for new voters.
Take Hernandez. She says she votes routinely, but has to be elsewhere this Nov. 5. Consequently, her journey to the voting booth on this sun-dappled Texas day.
Early voting "hasn't increased voter turnout," says Mr. Lewis.
It has, however, changed the way candidates in such states think of the election process. They are having to reconsider their strategies, no longer planning campaigns from Election Day backward.
They are introducing themselves to voters earlier and using attack ads sooner. In short, they are having to regard Election Day as more of an election month.
"Voters like it because it gives them more options," says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "But it does create some difficulties for the candidates and their parties. And the get-out-the-vote push has to start a couple of weeks early now."
But as states try to stop the continued decline in turnout by using tactics such as early voting, absentee balloting, and voting by mail, some people decry the rapidly disappearing communal aspect of voting on election day.
"I prefer to vote on Nov. 5," says Lori Lueptow, an assistant principle who came early to vote with a group of teachers from Gallegos Elementary School in Houston. "This was much more relaxed, but there's just something special about going out on Election day and voting with the rest of the country."
In addition, voters may not have all the facts if they cast their ballots early.
For instance, Caspar Weinberger was indicted just a few days before the 1992 presidential election for covering up his role in the Iran-contra scandal, which also implicated George Bush.
Ten days before that same election, Reform Party candidate Ross Perot accused the White House of trying to sabotage his daughter's wedding.
Early voters would not have had either bit of information.
"We all should have the same information base when we go to the polls," says Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington, who is no fan of early voting. "We'd be better off preserving the last communal act in our society. But now that early voting is in place, it's going to be almost impossible to roll it back."
In fact, Mr. Gans believes early voting actually hurts efforts to get people to the polls by diffusing mobilization efforts and lessening the intensity of Election Day.
While some voting-registration organizers agree, they also see benefits. People now have the option to vote at malls, grocery stores, libraries, and fire stations.
Even flea markets, as in Olmito, Texas a dusty little town in the lower Rio Grande Valley.
When searching for the right spot for their early-voting site, town officials turned down the suggestion of placing it inside the church and insisted it be located at the flea market.
That polling site ended up having the highest turnout in all of Cameron County last Sunday.
People who came to shop could take a number, snack on pan dulce, and wander around waiting for their name to be called over the loudspeaker.
"Some of our folks work two or three jobs, or do not have a lunch break," says Judy Donovan, with Interfaith Ministries in McAllen, Texas. "So ideas like this make voting wonderfully convenient."
In the end, analysts say, it's hard to know whether early voting is simply giving consistent voters another option or whether it is actually slowing the seemingly inexorably decline in turnout by keeping insecure voters from opting out of the system altogether.
"I would hate to think how bad participation rates would be without early voting," says José Garza, litigation director at the Texas Rural Legal Aid.