story and photo by Ben Pollock, special to The City Wire
Officials report turnout for the first week of early voting in Benton and Washington counties to be heavier than in the last presidential election.
Arkansas allows early voting 15 days before an election, beginning this fall on Oct. 22.
As of 4 p.m. Saturday, 16,092 ballots had been cast in the six polling places set up for Benton County, said County Clerk Tena O'Brien. This is an increase from 2008, when 9,326 county residents voted in the first six days of early voting.
In Washington County, 9,356 voters cast ballots as of Saturday afternoon, said County Clerk Karen Combs Pritchard. At that point in 2008, 7,801 cast early votes.
At the end of Saturday, there were 187,306 early votes, according to Arkansas Secretary of State Mark Martin. However, Martin’s figures included early voting from just 68 of Arkansas’ 75 counties.
Early voting is significant nationwide, with no less than a third of all ballots seem likely to be cast before Election Day Nov. 6.
The Associated Press Election Research Group reports that a sizable number of voters nationwide vote before Election Day, including absentees: In 2004, 22.7% of all Americans who cast ballots did so before Election Day, and that jumped to 33.4% in 2008.
O'Brien said previously that 40.9% of the 76,539 Benton County residents who in 2008 voted cast ballots early. The early vote percentage in Washington County was about 30%, Pritchard said Monday.
Research indicates politically motivated voters tend to come soon after early voting begins, according to Michael P. McDonald, associate professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. He heads the the United States Elections Project (( elections.gmu.edu/early_vote_2012.html )) .
McDonald uses the term "propensity" to analyze voting. He writes in his Huffington Post page that high propensity voters are "strong partisans who know who they will vote for." They tend to vote soonest in the early voting calendar with later days adding in lower- to moderate-propensity voters.
Yet casual interviews of voters along with comments from both O'Brien and Pritchard indicate the No. 1 factor to area residents is convenience.
"People love to early-vote," Pritchard said. "It's so easy and convenient, you don't have to worry if something comes up between now and Election Day that might keep you from voting."
"The whole reason early voting has grown, it seems from here, is the convenience of the voters," O'Brien said Monday. "Saturday is especially strong. Just having that one Tuesday, 7:30 to 7:30, is hard for a lot of people."
She thinks a big reason for the increase is growing awareness.
"It's simply taken a while to get the word out that early voting is for anyone, any registered voter, not just shut-ins or people going to be out of town," O'Brien said.
McDonald told The City Wire that his studies don't cover ease as a reason.
"I am talking about the earliest early voters versus the later early voters, and provide statistics [on propensity] to back up the observation,” he explained.
McDonald tweets statistical snapshots often at twitter.com/ElectProject. He focuses on key states in the presidential election. Arkansas is not among them. When asked how strong a role early voting plays in non-swing states, he said, "There has been little study on [the] second question. I've started data collection, but am far from being able to address the question."
This is Pritchard's last election to manage, retiring after working in various county offices for 43 years.
"My husband came in to early-vote last week. He looked at me and said, 'You're going to miss this.'"
Early voting continues to be available at the Washington County Courthouse, 280 N. College Ave. in Fayetteville, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. the rest of this week, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., on Monday, the day before the election. Paper ballots and touch screen voting are available there. Further information is at the county's early voting web page.
Early voting also is available at the Springdale Rodeo Center, next to Parsons Stadium 1423 E. Emma Ave. at Old Missouri Road. Its hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. this week, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., on Saturday. It offers only touchscreen balloting. The Springdale location will not be open Monday for early voting.
Benton County has has six locations for early voting:
County clerk's Bentonville office, 215 E. Central
County clerk's Rogers office, 300 W. Poplar
County clerk's Siloam Springs office, 707 S. Lincoln
Riordan Hall in Bella Vista, 3 Riordan Road
Iberia Bank in Bentonville, 706 S. Walton Blvd.
Intrust Bank in Rogers, 3300 Market
Early voting hours at the three county office locations are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and 8 .am. to 5 p.m. Monday. Paper ballots only are offered at those three offices. The other three locations will be open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. through Friday and not available for voting Saturday or Monday. (Link here for more info on early voting in Benton County.)