- Associated Press - Monday, September 24, 2012

Now it’s for real. Every time Mitt Romney or President Obama hits a rhetorical high note or commits another blunder, millions of voters watching and listening out there have the power to sit down at home, fill out a ballot, drop it in the mail and be done with the 2012 presidential race.

At least a third of American voters probably will lock in their choices before Election Day arrives Nov. 6.

The old democratic ritual of a single Tuesday in November when citizens commune in lines at schools and libraries and churches is fading across much of the United States. Why not just mail it in?

Although the two candidates have yet to meet for their first debate, voting by mail is under way in two dozen states, with more to follow. In three — Idaho, South Dakota and Vermont — voters already can show up in person.

Wyoming begins its in-person voting Thursday and so does Iowa, one of a handful of states considered up for grabs in the neck-and-neck presidential race.

In some of the other hotly contested states — Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina and Florida — more than half the ballots are expected to come in early this year.

Stretching voting out over six weeks makes the high-wire act of presidential campaigning that much more complicated. It presents risks but also rewards for the candidates, as Mr. Obama proved in 2008 through an aggressive early mobilizing strategy that overpowered Republican opponent John McCain.

This year looks different: The Romney campaign is pouring manpower and money into its push to sew up early votes.

Oregon’s elections are entirely by mail these days. Washington state also has eliminated traditional polling places in favor of mailed ballots, but residents determined to vote in person Nov. 6 can go to a county election office.

The rest of the states still offer traditional Election Day voting as well as some early options. Colorado, one of the presidential battlegrounds, has the most early birds. In 2008, nearly 80 percent of its votes were cast early and that’s expected to increase this time.

In 34 states and the District of Columbia, people can vote early without giving any reason, in contrast to traditional absentee balloting, which was designed for those who will be away from home on Election Day, such as military members or college students, or are physically unable to go to a voting booth.

Some states that ask for an excuse are so loose almost any reason will do, while others have kept strict rules limiting who can vote absentee.

New England and Southern states are less likely to encourage early voting. It’s most popular in the West, where the trend got started in the 1990s.

Someday the notion of an Election Day may seem as quaint as giving a campaign speech from atop a tree stump. Maybe it’ll be Election Month or the six-week Voting Season.

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