Five weeks before Election Day, about 14,000 North Carolina voters already have cast absentee ballots – a total equal to President Barack Obama’s margin of victory in 2008.
The number is etched into the minds of conservatives who are placing a greater emphasis than ever this year on absentee voting by mail, suggesting it could make the difference in another tight election contest.
“I think we learned a lesson after 2008,” said Dallas Woodhouse, the state director for Americans for Prosperity, an conservative political group targeting absentee voters. “There was a huge difference in how votes came in early and how they came in on Election Day.”
North Carolina voters began requesting mail ballots Sept. 7, earlier than any other state in the nation.
About seven in every 10 voters in the state are expected to pick candidates before Election Day, election officials and political observers say, with most taking advantage of early-voting sites that open Oct. 18.
Early voting is typically the domain of Democrats and the Obama campaign is planning a huge drive later this month to get supporters to early voting sites, just as it did in 2008.
“In 2008, over half of all the early votes cast were by registered Democrats, while registered Republicans only made up 30 percent of the early votes cast,” said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College. “I think the GOP learned their lesson in 2008 and aren’t going to repeat that mistake this year.”
Republicans agree, and are trying to get a head start on Democrats by targeting absentee mail ballots.
The GOP’s effort – a coordinated project with the national and state party organizations and Mitt Romney’s campaign – is focused on Republican-leaning independent and swing voters identified in canvassing efforts earlier this year. The party is sending them mailers asking them to request an absentee ballot by mail.
In coming weeks, party volunteers will “chase” those requests to make sure voters receive a ballot from their local election boards and send it back completed.
“We understand, as Republicans, that we are an Election Day-voting party,” said Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. “We don’t have to win early voting and absentee ballots, but we are making a concerted effort to do better than we have before.”
The absentee voting totals from September suggest the conservative efforts are working. More than half of all ballots cast in the 2012 election so far came from registered Republicans, according to state election officials.
“It’s a base election year,” Bitzer said, “and both parties are recognizing that they need to bank their reliable voters early and then move on to the potential persuadable voters out there, if there are any left.”
Outside groups, such as Americans for Prosperity, are helping the GOP effort.
Starting in August, Woodhouse said the state AFP organization sent about 200,000 absentee ballot request cards to North Carolina voters of all parties who were likely to support “free-market ideas,” as determined through voter files and consumer data.
The conservative group didn’t do a similar program in 2008 but decided it was necessary this year to keep pace with Democrats, Woodhouse said. But it’s not always an easy sell for conservatives who are naturally disinclined to trust government.
To compensate, AFP asked voters to mail their ballot requests back to the organization, which would then distribute them to local election boards. The tactic – which also allows better voter tracking – drew ire from those who worried that ballot requests from Democrats would get discarded.
Woodhouse said the group is processing all requests, regardless of party affiliation.
The extra attention is putting more strain on county election boards who are seeing a large volume of requests, said Wake County’s Cherie Poucher, but it’s encouraging.
“This is a way you can vote ... in the comfort of your own home,” she said.