Nearly one in four Mainers who voted in the 2010 gubernatorial election did so before Election Day, part of a national trend that one scholar has described as “a quiet revolution in American elections.”

The electoral sea change described by Paul Gronke, a professor of political science at Reed College in Oregon and director of the Early Voting Information Center, may go unnoticed by the general public, but it is a major concern for local and national political campaigns. In 2008 and 2012, the start of early voting in swing states dictated the timing of campaign stops by the presidential candidates. For the gubernatorial campaign committees of Republican Gov. Paul LePage, Democrat U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler, as well as their aligned political organizations, the prevalence of early voting – or in Maine no-excuse absentee voting – is the target of scrutiny, hand-wringing and sophisticated efforts designed to ensure that loyal supporters actually vote.

Maine Democrats are intent on maintaining their edge in turning out more absentee voters, which means they’re doing a better job of getting loyalists to the polls. Although the evidence is limited, there’s some data suggesting that women are more likely to vote absentee than men – which could be significant in an election where reproductive rights, the minimum wage and other issues important to women are generating debate.

For Cutler, balloting before the November election can be seen as a negative, because he’s running a distant third in independent polls, needs time to try to close the gap, and may not appear in public debates soon enough to capture the attention of absentee voters.

On one level, it’s the horse race within the horse race, a measurement of the direction of the electorate and enthusiasm. Deeper still, tracking the early vote with elaborate, personalized – and mostly confidential – voter data can determine if you – yes, you – have cast a ballot and whether you require additional persuasion via mailers or phone calls.

“What does it mean? It means you can’t wait until the last weekend before Election Day to start to mobilize voters and to think about that last surge of your campaign,” Gronke said. “It extends the campaigns.”

DRIVEN BY POLITICS

Absentee voting is not new to American elections. It was widespread nearly 200 years ago. Although originally adopted by Pennsylvania before the Civil War, an expansion in absentee balloting for Union soldiers was pushed by Republican lawmakers as the conflict raged. The effort had two purposes: first, to ensure that Union soldiers fighting during the Civil War were not disenfranchised by their military service, and second, to remind those same soldiers that Republicans, and President Abraham Lincoln in particular, had protected a fundamental right of U.S. citizenship.

Since then, absentee voting and early voting laws have contracted and expanded, in many instances at the whim of political forces seeking an electoral advantage. Gronke said no-excuse absentee balloting began in the late 1970s, but the more aggressive expansion has taken place over the last 15 years.

Today 33 states, including Maine, have some form of voting that allows individuals to cast a ballot in person before Election Day without justification, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In several Western states, among them Oregon, balloting is done almost entirely by mail.

Southern states were among the early adopters of early voting, in which voters can cast ballots in person at a polling place a week or two before Election Day. Northeastern states have been largely resistant to traditional early voting. The Democratic-controlled Maine Legislature tried to adopt early voting this year, but it was vetoed by LePage. The majority of New England states have also rejected no-excuse absentee voting. Maine and Vermont are the only two states to offer it.

Prior to 1999, Maine voters needed to provide a reason to obtain an absentee ballot, such as traveling out of the country or military service.

Scholars continue to debate whether expanding ballot access is contributing to increased voter turnout and a healthier democracy, as advertised. However, there is no doubt that early voting has changed the landscape for state and federal campaigns.

ELECTION DAY EXTENDED

In recent Maine elections, absentee votes have comprised a significant portion of the electorate, including nearly 26 percent in 2012 and 23 percent in 2010. The numbers largely mirror a national trend. In 2012, more than 32 million Americans cast ballots before Election Day, according to data compiled by the United States Elections Project and Michael McDonald, an associate professor at the University of Florida.

In 2010, a non-presidential election year, the U.S. early and absentee vote was about 24 percent, according to the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission. The absentee vote was 23 percent in Maine, according to data from the Maine Secretary of State’s Office. The 2008 presidential election marked a zenith in early voting as fewer than two-thirds, or 62 percent, of American voters who cast a regular ballot did so in person that year.

Maine was apart from the national early voting trend in 2008. Only 15 percent of voters who participated did so via absentee ballot that year.

So what kind of voters are early voters? Some states track demographic data and national organizations such as the Pew Research Center have conducted exit polls to develop a picture of early voters.

It’s fuzzy.

In 2008, a Pew survey tried to explain an early voting surge to 34 percent of the electorate from 20 percent in 2004, the previous presidential contest. It found that women made up 60 percent of early voters overall and older voters, those 65 or older, made up nearly 25 percent. The survey found “no significant differences” among respondents with various education or income levels, but showed large variances by region – a result likely attributable to non-uniform early voting laws among the states.

Maine does not track demographic data of absentee voters, according to Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn with the Bureau of Corporations, Elections and Commissions. However, it does tabulate individual absentee voters by town, party affiliation and the day and time ballots are received.

Also, each voter has a voter identification number. The identity of the voter is confidential, at least to the public. However, political organizations can pay the state to access the Central Voter Registration database, which includes every voter’s name, party enrollment status, participation history and other detailed information. Political organizations can use the voter identification number on the absentee ballot report to match information it purchased from the central database.

In other words, political organizations know if you’ve voted absentee, and whether or not you need to be contacted through their voter mobilization effort.

Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, said the combination of sophisticated voter files and the absentee ballot data has helped the campaigns identify idle and active voters and to adjust accordingly.

“If we can have our committed people vote early, we don’t have to expend the resource on Election Day to go find those people,” he said. “We can focus more on people who haven’t voted or on people we’re trying to convert to our voters.”

He added, “If they’re trying to get to 100,000 people on Election Day and you’re trying to reach them three different times, then you find out 20 percent of them voted early, you just saved yourself 20,000 phone calls or door knocks.”

DEMOCRATS WITH THE EDGE

Democratic operations, and the Obama campaigns in particular, have made significant strides in the get-out-the-vote initiative and have touted the gains during the last presidential elections to generate buzz and show grassroots support.

The Maine Republican Party has typically lagged in those efforts. However, 2010, a wave year for Republicans, marked a watershed moment. With LePage ahead in the polls and its legislative candidates quietly on the verge of a total takeover of the State House, the Maine Republican Party began championing the weekly absentee ballot report published by the secretary of state. The party claimed, justifiably as it turned out, that the electorate was trending Republican.

While Democrats finished the 2010 election with the most absentee ballots (38 percent), Republicans had finally been in the ballpark (34 percent). Absentee ballots cast by unenrolled voters comprised 26 percent of those cast.

Republicans were unable to replicate the effort in 2012, a presidential election year. Democratic voters cast 39 percent of the absentee ballots, compared to 29 percent for Republicans and 29 percent for unenrolled voters.

David Sorensen, communications director for the Maine Republican Party, said that the party never fully committed to an absentee voter drive that year. He promised a “robust” effort this year, citing resources provided by the Republican Governors Association.

“The RGA made a massive difference in our field effort in 2010 and we’re going to replicate that this year,” he said. “If I was Ben Grant I’d be very worried.”

Grant said the early absentee drive by Democrats will begin after Labor Day. He said the initiative is part and parcel of the party’s voter mobilization effort. The effort is important this year, he said, because it’s a non-presidential election and some Democratic supporters don’t always vote in midterm elections.

“In an off-year, sometimes our supporters need a little more convincing,” he said.

That’s especially true this year. While Democrats believe they can unseat LePage, the race is still very close between the governor and Michaud. Cutler, the independent, may be a distant third in the polls, but his presence is still a problem for Democrats.

Grant insisted that Cutler will have no impact on the party’s early absentee strategy.

“For one thing, the party exists to support the whole ticket,” he said. “We’re generating support and votes for the whole (Democratic) ticket. The dynamics of one race don’t dictate how we conduct the early vote.”

CALL FOR EARLY DEBATES

Extending the campaigns to adjust to the increase in early voting and no excuse absentee balloting comes with a cost, both financially and tactically.

Recently, Cutler has ramped up his call for early gubernatorial debates with his two opponents, or just one, Michaud, if necessary. Cutler’s campaign handlers have said the debate rhetoric is driven by their desire for an informed electorate. However, the calendar is likely a factor, if not the prevailing one.

Last week marked the beginning of the 45-day period in which voters can begin requesting absentee ballots.

The election has effectively begun.

For Cutler, who is lagging a distant third in the polls, it’s far too soon. While his campaign has the same access to Maine voting data as the political parties do, it doesn’t have the same get-out-the-vote machinery. In 2010, the independent partially blamed his narrow second-place finish to LePage on early voting. Had voters not been allowed to cast ballots 45 days before Election Day, as Maine law allows, Cutler argued that anti-Le- Page voters would have chosen him and he could have won the election.

Whether that assertion is true will never truly be known. Data from the Maine secretary of state show that nearly 70 percent of the more than 147,000 absentee ballots accepted that year came in October. More than half of the October ballots arrived during Cutler’s late surge. Nearly 15 percent of absentee ballots were returned in September, while 0.6 percent were submitted in August.

Nonetheless, the independent’s comments underscore the emphasis of early voting in modern campaigns.

Gronke, who has advised state lawmakers on early voting laws, has argued that early voting can take place, well, too early. In some instances, he said, early voting can give an advantage to party candidates.

“It’s kind of like they have a 100-meter dash and the two party candidates are starting at the 20-meter mark,” he said.

There are other impacts to extending Election Day.

In October 2003, the Los Angeles Times reported that six women had accused California Republican gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger of groping and humiliating them. Gronke noted that the story broke after one-third of California voters had already cast their ballots in the election.

“I can’t tell you that if that information had been released earlier that those individuals would have changed their vote or not,” Gronke said. “But I can tell you that a third of the ballots had already been cast and they could not have read that story.”

He added, “The question is: How many people would have changed their mind?”