Mail-in voting is transforming the American presidential race, with more than 30 per cent of citizens expected to vote before Nov 4.
Is Obama win signed, sealed and delivered?
DENVER // When Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential hopeful, appeared before a crowd of more than 100,000 in the Colorado state capital on Sunday, he immediately made his priorities clear. "How many people here have early-voted?" Mr Obama asked supporters, who responded with a loud cheer and a show of hands. "Those of you who haven't early-voted, find someone next to you who has," he said, "and find out what you need to do." With a week until the US presidential election, it is crunch time in this key swing state, where mail-in voting is transforming the race. Almost 20 per cent of the 1.6 million Coloradans who received their ballot by post have already mailed them back, according to the secretary of state's office. More than 85,000 others have voted at polling centres, which opened on Saturday. By election day on Nov 4, as many as 60 per cent of Coloradans will have already cast their ballot. "It requires the candidates to treat the entire month of October as election day," said Floyd Ciruli, a Denver-based pollster and political analyst. "There are constant campaign events, visits by the candidates, and a heavy dose of political ads." State officials hope mail-in voting will alleviate the four-hour queues that plagued polls in 2004 and 2006. In addition, some voters who chose to mail their ballots said they were nervous about the state's new voting machines, or simply wanted time to sit down and consider the many amendments on the four-page ballot. "I would say, in our circle of friends, nearly everyone I know has early-voted," said Laura Lefkowits, a Denver resident. "We don't want to see any problems on November 4." Colorado is not alone. Most US states offer voters the option to cast absentee ballots by mail, but the concept of mail-in voting has taken off in larger western states, including Oregon, Washington and California. A recent Gallup study found that in this election as many as 30 per cent of citizens across the United States will have voted before election day on Nov 4. Traditionally, mail-in voting has targeted rural voters in larger states where distances to the polling stations tended to reduce turnout. That has tended to benefit Republicans. This year, the Colorado Republican Party dispatched an army of volunteers to hand out 35,000 information pamphlets in Weld County, a rural Republican stronghold where rates of mail-in voting are high. But the Obama campaign has also embraced mail-in voting, targeting urban Hispanic and African-American voters, who traditionally tend to register in higher numbers than their actual turnout on election day reflects. The Obama campaign, which earlier registered record numbers of new voters, now has thousands of volunteers making follow-up calls and visits to their homes to make sure these newly registered Democrats follow through in filling out their ballots and dropping them in the mail. "It's called ballot-chasing, and it basically allows the parties to bug people to death," Mr Ciruli said. "My guess is that the majority of the huge audience Obama had on Sunday already voted. They will now be mobilised to help others to get out and vote." Getting out the voters will be key in hotly contested Colorado, which George W Bush won in the past two elections. As recently as August, a survey by the Rocky Mountain News put John McCain in front by three percentage points. Since then, economic turmoil appears to have shifted the state firmly into Mr Obama's camp. An Oct 24 survey, also by the newspaper, gave Mr Obama a 12-point advantage over his Republican opponent, and a devastating 2-1 lead among the state's sizeable pool of independent voters. Other polls put the Democratic candidate ahead by seven to 10 points. Democratic Party officials, as well as Mr Obama and his running mate, Joe Biden, a Delaware senator, are wary of complacency, however. "Maybe I've been down this road too many times before, but we cannot afford to wait," Mr Biden told a crowd in Colorado Springs during a campaign visit on Friday. "So for those of you who have not voted yet? you have no excuse; go vote now." The Republicans are also pulling out all the stops. Analysts said Colorado's nine electoral votes will be vital if Mr McCain is to pull off an 11th-hour upset to win the White House. At a McCain rally in American football-crazed Denver on Friday, the Republicans brought out John Elway, a former Denver Broncos quarterback, who urged voters to cast a ballot at an early polling centre after leaving the arena. "It's the fourth quarter," Mr Elway told the crowd. So far, an equal percentage of Democrats and Republicans have voted early, indicating the Obama campaign is making headway in a vote sector the Republicans always dominated, Mr Ciruli said. These next few days will see another flurry of visits to Colorado by the candidates and get-out-the-vote events, featuring celebrities and giveaway gimmicks. With the past two US presidential elections decided by razor-thin margins, Mr Ciruli said, "early votes are like money in the bank". firstname.lastname@example.org