Minnesotans began voting Friday in the first presidential election that allows them to vote absentee without needing an excuse.
Many voters — who can vote by mail with absentee ballots from the secretary of state or go to locations like city halls and county buildings — are expected to do their civic duty early even as the extraordinary presidential campaign heads into its final, unpredictable stretch.
Both parties will use the extra time to ramp up turnout and bank as many early votes as they can.
In a year when GOP nominee Donald Trump is trying to reach disaffected voters who are new to the political system, the extra time is important to Republican efforts to find them and encourage them to cast ballots for Trump and other Republicans.
But the DFL views the longer voting period as particularly helpful because its voters are often not as reliable as their Republican counterparts.
The campaign of Hillary Clinton and the state party held rallies Friday in Minneapolis and Apple Valley to push early voting.
“It’s in our interest to get as many people to vote as possible through whatever means are available to us,” said Kendal Killian, who heads up the DFL’s coordinated campaign and managed U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan’s 2014 re-election that Democrats believe benefited from a strong early voting push in Duluth.
In recent years, the DFL has won in higher-turnout presidential election years, while Republicans have won in lower-turnout off-years, such as when they claimed the majority of the Minnesota House two years ago.
“Early voting changes the way campaigns have to operate,” said Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist who has studied the trend closely. It allows campaigns to chase down low propensity voters who are supporters but need more motivation, he said.
Campaigns save time and money because once a person is crossed off the list, the voter no longer requires mail advertisements, phone calls or door-knocks.
With votes locked up before Election Day, the parties have more resources to focus on persuading undecided voters and chasing down their last supporters on Nov. 8.
The Legislature, which was controlled by the DFL at the time, passed a law in 2014 allowing anyone to vote absentee. The number of people voting by absentee ballot shot up from 127,000 in 2010 to 198,000 in 2014. That’s a 56 percent jump in a comparable nonpresidential election year.
As of noon Friday, more than 100,000 absentee ballots already had been issued to voters by mail or in person, the secretary of state's office said.
More than 30 states now have some kind of early voting program, according to the National Association of Secretaries of State. The added flexibility has pushed up overall turnout in the states that have it, according to political scientists.
By Election Day 2012, 4.5 million Floridians had already voted out of a total of about 8.4 million votes cast there. The number of registered Democrats voting early outpaced Republicans by 167,000.
Nationwide, more than 32 million Americans voted early, according to the United States Elections Project.
Minnesota could see a 3 percentage point increase in turnout due to early voting, said Jan Leighley, an American University political scientist. But she cautioned that Minnesota’s already high turnout — 76 percent in 2012, the highest in the nation — could mean a smaller increase.
If the DFL — with its thousands of volunteers, 300 employees and bevy of field offices throughout the state — seems more focused on early voting, that’s because the nature of their coalition requires it, McDonald said. Young people, minorities and people with lower educational attainment often require more prodding, and early voting allows it, he said.
But Republicans believe they have been leaving votes on the table and are trying to rejuvenate their ground game, beginning with an early vote push, said GOP Chairman Keith Downey.
“We felt like we underperformed in our more conservative areas,” Downey said about 2012, during which Republicans lost both chambers of the Minnesota Legislature and a U.S. Senate race, while two conservative-led voter initiatives banning same-sex marriage and requiring an ID to vote both went down.
Downey has sought to modernize the party by integrating data and technology tools available to campaigns and improving social media outreach, he said.
The Trump candidacy offers a special opportunity and challenge for Republicans: A chance to capture new and infrequent voters excited by the New York real estate mogul’s no-holds-barred style.
“It’s energizing a group of people who historically don’t participate,” Downey said. “Educating them that they can vote early, that’s important for us. We need to capture that vote.”
Minnesota brought in a young field operative and data specialist named Tim Bohl, who worked in Iowa in 2014, where Republicans’ newly found mastery of the early voting game helped elect Joni Ernst to the U.S. Senate.
Shirley Schaff, who lives in Eden Prairie and owns a recruiting firm, said she and GOP volunteers would be out at 9 a.m., working three shifts all weekend to educate Republicans about early voting.
As for herself, however, she’s a traditionalist: She likes to vote on Election Day.
In Minnesota on Friday, a surge of voters had already cast their ballots by midmorning.
Wendy Helgeson and two friends brought their 13-year-old daughters along to a DFL rally and then to an early-voting center in downtown Minneapolis.
She voted for Clinton and said her daughter is also a supporter. She couldn’t imagine her daughter backing Trump.
Reminded how teenagers can be rebellious, Helgeson laughed and said she had a solution: Take her daughter’s phone away and no dinner for a week.
J. Patrick Coolican • 651-925-5042