WASHINGTON - While candidates stump in Iowa, voters already have opened the 2008 presidential race by casting absentee ballots in nearly a dozen other states.
Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses are Thursday. But residents of 11 states — Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, South Carolina and Utah — have been able to vote for their favorite candidates since December.
The first was Michigan, where absentee ballots were made available Dec. 1 for the Jan. 15 primary.
Requests are high so far.
"We're burning through a lot of OT in my office," said Lansing, Mich., Clerk Chris Swope, who estimated that three or four employees have been working two to three hours a night to keep up with absentee applications.
Absentee voting expands to a majority of the country in January. Sixteen other states make ballots available to their voters before the end of the month, including delegate-rich California on Jan. 7.
Nearly 4 million voters in California are signed up as "permanent absentee voters," meaning early ballots for the primaries will automatically pop up in their mailboxes. In 2004, about a third of the state's primary ballots were cast early. In 2006, the figure was 47 percent.
The surge in absentee voting has caught the attention of the candidates.
On Thursday, caucus day in Iowa, GOP contender Rudy Giuliani plans to be in Florida, where more than a third of the state's voters cast early ballots in the 2004 general election. Absentee ballots have been available there since the day after Christmas for the Jan. 29 primary.
Spokeswoman Katie Levinson said Giuliani is also focused on Illinois and Missouri, which vote Feb. 5. In Missouri, absentee ballots also have been available since Dec. 26, while Illinois absentee ballots became available the next day.
Still, no one knows how many people actually will vote absentee this year.
In Jackson County, Mo., which includes most of Kansas City, election director Bob Nichols said early absentee turnout appears to be a little below average.
"With the holidays falling at this time, that also has an impact of people not taking time out at this point," Nichols said. "They don't have that interest — they're shopping or partying."