WASHINGTON - Election Day will be something of an afterthought for tens of millions of Americans — they'll be voting well ahead of time.
In fact, six weeks out from Election Day, some voters in Kentucky, South Carolina and Virginia already are done.
Nationwide, about a third of the electorate is expected to vote early this year, thanks to expanded early voting provisions and fewer restrictions on absentee voting, researchers project. In all, more than 30 states allow any registered voter to cast an early ballot, some in person and others by mail.
Greg Dearing, of Louisville, Ky., locked in his ballot for Barack Obama on Thursday.
"I'm usually a straight party voter," said Dearing, who will be vacationing in California on Nov. 4. "It would take something very far-fetched to make me regret my vote."
Early voting has been on the increase in recent years: In 2004, 22 percent of voters cast an early presidential ballot; in 2000, 16 percent voted early.
It's a trend that is fundamentally changing the home stretch of American political campaigns. October surprises? They'd better come in September if campaigns want to influence every vote. Get out the vote operations? They're already under way in some states.
"You can't hold your big guns right to the end," said Paul Gronke, director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Oregon. "When up to 25 or 30 percent of the electorate has already cast a ballot, it might not be wise to wait until the last minute" to make a game-changing play for votes.
Even the presidential debate series, which begins Friday and runs through Oct. 15, will come after many have voted. However, experts say the earliest voters tend to be party loyalists who wouldn't be swayed by debate performances anyway.
Across the nation, election officials are reporting high demand for absentee ballots. Ballots already are available in a few states, and they will be ready in about 20 more this week. By the first week of October, absentee voting will have started in all but a handful of states. In most states, all registered voters will be eligible to vote absentee, and a growing number will take advantage.
By the middle of last week, South Carolina had collected 84 ballots from voters living overseas or in the military, said Chris Whitmire, spokesman for the state Election Commission. In Louisville, polling stations opened Thursday, with voting restricted to those who will be unable to show up on Election Day. In Virginia, Fairfax County started accepting absentee ballots Friday.
None of the early votes will be counted until Election Day, and in some states it could take days or weeks to count all absentee ballots. But in most states, the campaigns will be able to determine well ahead of Nov. 4 who's voted early. Want the campaigns to stop bombarding you with fliers and phone calls? Vote early.
"That's one less person we need to put a get-out-the-vote call to and one less person we need to send a mailer to," said Nathan Treloar, communications director for the Iowa Republican Party.
Both presidential campaigns are pressing their supporters to vote early, trying to gain an advantage in a tight race. In past elections, the GOP has had a formidable "72-hour" program for getting voters to the polls in the final run-up to Election Day.
"What we have now is the 720-hour program," said Rich Beeson, political director for the Republican National Committee, which is coordinating get-out-the-vote efforts for John McCain's campaign. "It's a two-week program, and in some cases, it's a month."
Obama's campaign is targeting potential early voters state by state.
"We do everything we can to make sure our supporters know all the options available to them," said Jon Carson, Obama's national field director. "We've been building a massive ground game for all of this."
Absentee voting used to be reserved mainly for people who were unable to make it to the polls on Election Day, whether they were too sick to travel, away on business or serving in the military. State laws still vary, but most are relaxing such restrictions.
Oregon is 100 percent vote by mail, and Washington state is getting close. Early voting in Colorado, Nevada, Tennessee and Arizona could top 40 percent or even 50 percent of total votes cast.
Absentee voting starts in early October in Minnesota, and thousands already have requested ballots, including a few snowbirds who stopped by the Edina city clerk's office on their way out of town.
"People are parked out there in their RV's," said Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.
Proponents say early voting is easy and convenient for people with increasingly busy lives.
"There is no line at your mailbox," said Karen Osborne, elections director in Maricopa County, Ariz., which includes Phoenix. "It gives you extra time to look at the issues, and if you have an issue that you're not real familiar with, you can talk to others and make that decision in the comfort of your own home."
Others aren't so enamored.
"We understand some people really truly need absentee ballots but some folks are just plain lazy," said Kristine Schmidt, city clerk in Brookfield, Wis., a suburb of Milwaukee. "They don't want to be bothered by having to stand in line."
John Fortier, an early voting expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said early voting is not a panacea for increasing turnout.
"People like this. They like to vote by mail, they like the convenience," Fortier said. "But it tends to be the same people who voted at polling places."
He also cautioned that it could increase the potential for fraud.
"Once a ballot goes outside a polling place it loses some of the safeguards," Fortier said. "You don't have representatives from both parties watching over the process."
Early voting is relatively new in hotly contested Ohio, and it is already sparking controversy there. A small group of GOP-backed voters has filed a lawsuit against the Democratic secretary of state, Jennifer Brunner, over her interpretation of Ohio's absentee voting law.
Ohio changed its election law in 2005 to allow any registered voter to cast an absentee ballot, beginning Sept. 30. The deadline for registering isn't until Oct. 6, so Brunner ruled there is a six-day window in which voters can register and vote at the same time. The GOP maintains that a person must be registered for 30 days to get an absentee ballot.
Democrats are practically salivating at the thought of thousands of college students registering and voting for Obama — all in the same day.
"Voting is a two-step process in this country," said Gronke, the early voting expert. "The difficulty with young voters has always been getting them to do both steps."
Republicans, however, don't intend to cede the state's universities to the Democrats. "We've got a very aggressive plan that is going to be in place for that window," said the RNC's Beeson.