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Quietly, America's Election Day becomes Election Month -- and you're in it right now

October 5, 2010 |  2:22 am

a Voting booth like one not used for mail-ballots

Exactly four weeks from today media consumers across the country will be treated to some of the most timeworn visual cliches in American history:

Smiling congenitally optimistic candidates doing their democratic duty at the polls, often with a spouse at hand, usually early in the day before a hovering pack of cameras and reporters so the images can be distributed as timely reminders to supporters to get out to the polls before they close.

And then in the evening TV will bring us live reports from nascent victory parties around town, at least half of which will end up as political funerals.

Between now and then we'll hear much in the media about President Obama, Vice President Biden and First Lady Michelle Obama spending....

...millions flying in large planes all over the country to talk to friendly crowds and drive polls and make political contests into tightening horse races.

No doubt many stories will contain liberal doses of little guy comebacks-in-the-making, the most compelling of tales to American eyes, whether they are politicians, Boise State or a thoroughbred named Zenyatta always coming from the rear of the pack to win.

But what's largely overlooked this year is how U.S. elections are fundamentally changing due to something as simple as early voting.

Right now, as you read this 28 days out from the actual counting, millions of Americans are already voting. Iowans have been at it for two weeks, as has Wyoming. Ohioans started a week ago. Hoosiers on Monday, the day California mailed out millions of mail-in ballots. Illinois next week. With Alaska voting starting Oct. 18, write-in Senate candidate Lisa Murkowski has little time to teach name-spelling.

Three dozen states now allow early voting, 37 places if you think the District of Columbia matters. One-in-five U.S. voters cast their ballots early in 2004, one-in-four in 2006 and one-in-three in 2008, according to the Early Voting information Center.A T shirt captures the angry mood of many American voters

The forces driving early voting are strong. It allows hard-pressed governments to spread the massive workload over a longer period.

It addresses the American public's growing appetite for on-demand services, whether at ATMs, groceries, toll-free services, even veterinarians open 24 hours a day.

In one sense early voting helps candidates' campaigns, which want to ensure the turnout of their favorable voters; for weeks campaigns can now see day-to-day government records of who's voted in-person or by mail and who's left to remind by phone.

All this was once confined to one long, hectic election day.

But the early voting movement is part of a larger fast-forwarding of modern election campaigns. John F. Kennedy announced his presidential candidacy on Jan. 3 of election year. Bill Clinton announced his in October the year before. George W. Bush in July the year before. And Barack Obama in February the year before.

So too have campaigns had to advance their strategies. That's why you now see so many political ads on August TV; once that was a month for vacations, casual chats and occasional political picnics leading up to the real start on Labor Day. Now August is a central part of the fall campaign. We could see a Republican start a 2012 presidential campaign shortly after this coming Christmas.

If internal polls show you're running behind, you'll be too tardy leaving attack ads until late October. If you're running ahead, you'll shift campaign money from late ads to support early voting and lock in your supporters' ballots before any last-minute adversity might affect the outcome.

Dismissing much of the late-developing talk about a Democratic surge, respected political prognosticator Stuart Rothenberg says last summer was the best time for that party's hard-pressed candidates to change the downbeat storyline in this challenging year of the angry voter. By early October, he maintains, the cement is drying on voters' mindsets.

Of course, you won't know the numerical outcomes until late Nov. 2. But while you've been reading this item, thousands of voters across the country made their choices for Congress, governors and nearly 7,000 state legislators who will, don't forget, be the ones redrawing legislative districts next year based on the 2010 Census data.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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