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Early Voting Kicks Off

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Most Americans will cast our ballots on November 8, or will we? Early voting begins in some states as soon as the end of this month. Twenty million ballots might be in the hands of voters by the end of September. After several elections with early voting, can we see what impact it might have on the political system and even the final result?

Paul Gronke is a professor of political science at Reed College in Portland, Ore. He's founder and director of the Early Voting Information Center. He joins us from Philadelphia. Professor Gronke, thanks for being with us.

PAUL GRONKE: Absolutely, good to talk with you, Scott.

SIMON: Is it your impression so far that one party or one campaign is better prepared than the other right now for early balloting?

GRONKE: I think so. The Democrats really ramped up their operation with the Obama campaign in 2008, and they really got a very good data operation. Rick Perry led the way with the Republicans in some work in Texas to start to track Republican voters and connect them with whether they've cast their ballots early.

Romney did a good job in 2012, but from what I hear, the chatter I - I talk in my circles is that Hillary Clinton has a very good overall data analytics operation, including early voting, and that Trump's operation is not as well set in place. And, you know, Trump has mixed relationships with Republicans around the country. And these local Republicans, they know who cast early votes. It's not clear that the Trump team has put that information in one place.

SIMON: Let me ask you about what are called battleground states in this coming election. I'll rattle off Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Is there early voting there? Will people take advantage of it?

GRONKE: Absolutely. Florida - it'll be - approximately 40 percent of the ballots will come in early, perhaps a higher number. Half of those will come in early in person. Ohio also has a lot of early voting. Pennsylvania - no. Pennsylvania still only allows for excuse-required absentee balloting. So in Pennsylvania, they still wait until Election Day.

And, Scott, this is going to change the dynamics in those states so that you will expect to see early rallies timed when the early voting period opens up, likely in Florida, Ohio, North Carolina. The candidates' travel schedule will reflect this because they want to follow up that kind of enthusiasm and get people to the polls right away.

SIMON: And are more people voting early now not because they have to but because they just want to?

GRONKE: They are. So the numbers have started to plateau a little bit. The high watermark really was 2008 and the excitement and enthusiasm about Barack Obama's candidacy. So we were up to a third of the ballots being cast before Election Day. There was a bit of a retreat in 2012 down to about 31 percent. Certainly in the West, 70 or 80 percent of the ballots are coming in prior to Election Day in many states.

SIMON: I ask because somebody who cast their ballot a month ahead of the election is going to do that before a lot can happen in an election campaign - debates, gaffes, global events. Is it wise to vote early if you don't really have to?

GRONKE: I mean, gaffes, Scott, that's for you. That's the way you fill up the air time. But, you know, the gaffes don't often make that big of a difference. We don't know how much they really indicate, and, you know, I'm a fundamentals guy.

SIMON: OK, I plead - I plead guilty to gaffes.

GRONKE: (Laughter).

SIMON: But what about telling arguments made in the course of a campaign, political debates or earthshaking events?

GRONKE: Absolutely. So that's a very common concern about early voting. What I can reassure you is that most of the early ballots will come in not much earlier than a week or a week and a half before the election. And when we've asked people about whether they have any regret or they would've changed their minds, very few say they would've changed their minds. So you may not want them to be casting those ballots early, but many are ready to do so.

SIMON: Paul Gronke, founder and director of the Early Voting Information Center, thanks so much for being with us.

GRONKE: Absolutely, Scott. Go Cubs.

SIMON: And tomorrow on Weekend Edition Sunday, two character profiles of the candidates - Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.