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As more states adopt early voting, Pa. bucks the trend

With campaign bombshells dropping a full month ahead of this year's presidential finish line, Caryn and Bryan Evans walked into a South Jersey elections office Friday to join millions of other Americans voting early.

So far, 17,000 mail-in ballots have been processed at Camden County’s early voting center.
So far, 17,000 mail-in ballots have been processed at Camden County’s early voting center.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

With campaign bombshells dropping a full month ahead of this year's presidential finish line, Caryn and Bryan Evans walked into a South Jersey elections office Friday to join millions of other Americans voting early.

"I definitely want a woman to get in," said Caryn Evans, 43, as the Pennsauken stay-at-home mother and wife of a police officer leaned over a clipboard and filled out a form for an early ballot. "I want to vote today."

And she could.

People like Evans are making their voices heard early in 37 states that have expanded early voting, a movement expected to result in a third of all votes cast in this year's general election.

Early voting represents a return to an election practice that started before the Civil War, a way to allow rural voters time to get to a polling place. It expanded in recent decades to make voting more convenient and to shield against bad weather having an outsize impact on a major election.

New Jersey began expanding early voting in 2009. Pennsylvania remains among the holdout states.

While its goals are to expand voter participation, observers say early voting this year could boomerang against Donald Trump in particular, as the Republican presidential nominee has less time to recover from scandal in early-voting battlegrounds like Florida, Colorado, and Ohio. There, voters are penciling in presidential choices amid a cascade of ugly headlines over the last two weeks.

That may be less the case in old-school battlegrounds like Pennsylvania, where the only early voting allowed is absentee ballots for members of the military, overseas civilians, and for voters with other approved reasons. Here, Trump could invest a month of late-stage campaigning to reach and persuade nearly all Pennsylvania voters.

"In Pennsylvania, if he takes two weeks to fix this problem . . . he basically has two weeks to change the subject and get voters thinking in a different way," said Democratic election-advertising strategist J.J. Balaban, of the Philadelphia-based Campaign Group. "In Florida and North Carolina, he's in a tight spot right now."

Early clues

Data collected by experts about the ballots that have been requested thus far across the country mirror the state-by-state poll results for each candidate.

Take North Carolina, which since 1980 has voted for Republican presidents in every election except 2008. This fall, data collected in the Tar Heel State show intense interest for early ballots among liberal voters, a plus for Clinton.

"The early voting numbers we're getting so far do confirm what we see in national polling: North Carolina early Democratic ballots are up from 2012, down from Republican [levels] in 2012," said turnout and elections expert Michael McDonald, associate professor of political science at the University of Florida. "It looks like Clinton will do better [there] than Obama" did four years ago.

In Iowa, where Trump has been leading in the polls, "what we're seeing is almost just the opposite," McDonald said. "Democrats are the ones that are disengaged in Iowa. Republicans are, too, but not nearly at the level that Democrats are in Iowa, a state that Obama won by 6 percentage points."

McDonald warned that there is plenty of time for things to shift.

The earliest ballots, he said, tend to be cast by those who feel most strongly about their candidate - older voters, and people steeped in politics. It's not until the final week that younger and undecided voters join the early-voting tallies in significant numbers.

Some 200,000 ballots have been cast in Florida, a state that both candidates consider a must-win, McDonald said. But many of those voters likely held the strongest convictions about their favored candidate to begin with.

Census estimates have found that 30 percent of all votes cast in the 2008 general election were early ballots - a number that rose to 32 percent in 2012, McDonald said. He expects that to reach 34 percent this year.

In Pennsylvania, where Republicans control both legislative chambers, efforts to introduce early voting have gone nowhere. At least five early-voting bills were introduced in the state House and Senate early in 2015, all sponsored by Democrats.

None got traction.

Other states have so wholeheartedly embraced early voting, they have largely put an end to the voting-booth ritual.

Washington, Oregon, and Colorado hold mail-ballot-only elections, giving voters weeks to return completed ballots that will be tabulated on Election Day.

Lining up

In South Jersey this year, Camden County officials opened a one-stop-shopping "early voting center" in Gloucester Township to make it easier for voters.

That is where, much to their delight Friday morning, Caryn and Brian Evans went to get ballot applications for themselves and one of their sons.

"That's convenient," Brian Evans, a 45-year-old Pennsauken police officer, said as he stepped away to complete a form.

This is the second presidential election for which the Evanses will have voted early in New Jersey. They plan a family vacation to Gettysburg during election week each year and hate the idea of missing out on voting.

But where his wife, two sons, and one daughter are ardently behind Clinton, Brian Evans said Friday he did not feel ready to vote then and there for the candidate he preferred - Trump.

He said he has reservations about the GOP nominee's support for unions and his decision to include Gov. Christie among his inner circle of advisers. These are the worries Evans may carry through to Election Day.

"I want to do the final weighing out of my thoughts," he said.

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