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Now it's for real.
Every time Mitt Romney or Barack Obama hits a rhetorical high note or commits another blunder, millions of voters have the power to fill out a ballot, drop it in the mail and be done with the 2012 presidential race.
At least a third of American voters are expected to lock in their choices before Nov. 6.
In Iowa, early voting starts today. If history is any indication, more than a third of Iowans who vote will do so before Election Day. In Nebraska, early voting starts Monday, with about 20 percent of the vote expected early.
The old democratic ritual of a single Tuesday in November when citizens gather is fading across much of the U.S.
Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia allow voters to cast ballots early, without any excuse or justification. In fact, two states require that all ballots be cast by mail: Oregon and Washington state, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The trend toward early voting is changing the nature of elections and presidential campaigns, particularly in battleground states such as Iowa. Campaigns are working to get early ballots in the hands of their supporters, hoping to lock up as many votes as possible.
“If you can get your voters to vote early, that's money in the bank. You've got their vote, and that shrinks the number of potential voters you have to work to get to the polls,” said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines.
In Iowa and Nebraska, the number of early votes cast in the past three elections has, generally speaking, increased.
But it's clear from the numbers that Iowans favor early ballots more than Nebraskans.
In Iowa, about 35 percent voted early in 2010, up from about 32 percent in 2008. In Nebraska, about 16 percent cast an early ballot in the last election, down a bit from the 21 percent who voted early in 2008 — an election that set records for turnout in much of the state.
One reason more Iowans vote early is the swing state's prominent role in the presidential election. Both Obama and Romney are playing heavily there and working overtime to bank votes early.
In Iowa, Democrats have a lead of more than 90,000 in the number of early ballots requested. However, Republicans say they plan to catch up. They sent out early ballot requests to targeted supporters this week.
“Both campaigns are really ramped up here, and they're trying to turn out people early, which is bound to have an effect,” said Chad Olsen, a spokesman for the Iowa Secretary of State.
Once cast, an early vote can't slip away because of a candidate's misstep or a nasty new attack ad. Neither rain nor snow nor traffic jam can touch it.
“It's something they can count on. And, of course, campaigns love that. The more they can count their votes before Election Day, the happier they are,” said Randy Adkins, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Early voting rules vary widely state to state, as do strategies and tactics for pursuing the votes.
Students, for example, are a major Obama target. But snail mail is increasingly useless in reaching them — many no longer have mailboxes in their dorms — complicating efforts to harvest absentee ballots. So in Iowa and other states, Democrats emphasize satellite voting locations on or near college campuses.
Republicans are targeting early voting locations at or near megachurches, where large numbers of GOP-leaning evangelical Christians worship.
In 2010, early voting was held at the same time as Sunday services for two evangelical congregations in Ames, Iowa. Nationally, the Faith and Freedom Coalition is urging conservative Christians in at least 10 swing states to vote early.
World-Herald staff writer Robynn Tysver contributed to this report, which includes material from the Associated Press, Bloomberg News and McClatchy Newspapers.