SIOUX CITY | About 200 envelopes land in the Woodbury County Auditor’s Office mailbox every day.

Inside are requests for absentee ballots, through which voters can cast ballots for the general election starting Sept. 27 -- 40 days before polls officially open, on Nov. 6.

The early voting -- and Iowa has one of the earliest dates in the U.S. -- means the final sprint to Election Day is nearly here. Election workers and campaigns are gearing up for the last leg.

"The parties like it because they try to get their base out, voted and in the bank, so they can focus on the stragglers for their Election Day efforts," said Woodbury County Commissioner of Elections Pat Gill.

Any registered voter in Iowa can request an absentee ballot through his or her county auditor’s office. Ballots are mailed and returned, with the results counted on Nov. 5.

Additionally, election officials can have satellite absentee voting stations for people to cast ballots in person. Locations are planned in October at Long Lines Family Rec Center, 401 Gordon Drive, in Sioux City, as well as at Briar Cliff University and Morningside College.

Morningside College political science professor Patrick McKinlay worked with Gill and the Morningside Civic Union to have a satellite on campus. McKinlay said students today don't know a process without early voting.

"It is an enormous convenience to the average voter," McKinlay said. "Many folks make up their minds weeks before Election Day."

Gill said early voting also relieves Election Day stress on poll workers.

Of the 45,030 Woodbury County ballots cast in the November 2008 election, 46 percent used the early voting option. By Tuesday morning, Woodbury County had 3,760 early voting requests.

The number has steadily increased since the mid-2000s, Gill said.

"Some folks still think when you say 'absentee,' you have to have a reason. But it certainly isn't in Iowa anymore," Gill said. "Now, it is wide open. Anybody can request it."

Nebraska and South Dakota have similar rules for early voting. It starts Oct. 1 in Nebraska and Sept. 21 in South Dakota. But it’s the battleground state of Iowa where the impact could be the most pronounced. President Barack Obama discussed it during a stop in Urbandale, Iowa, on Sept. 1.

"Because in Iowa, you don't have to wait till Nov. 6 to vote. You can be among the very first to vote in this election, starting Sept. 27," he said.

Republican challenger Mitt Romney is looking to build up the early vote as well, eager to erect a better firewall than John McCain did four years ago.

Michael McDonald, a government and politics professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., said early voting allows campaigns to acquire data from state election officials on voters who haven't returned ballots. Campaign volunteers can then focus calls on them.

"Those who've made up their minds get scratched off the list and the focus can turn to those who are really hard to reach and persuade," McDonald said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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