Iowans began voting in the 2012 election this morning.

A line of people were waiting for the doors to open at the Scott County Administrative Center, much of it the result of efforts by Democrats to get people to show up on the first day to vote.

Experts say that more than four in 10 Iowans could end up voting before Election Day, and the lobby on the administrative center’s first floor was crowded with people early on, and there still were about two dozen there more than two hours after the doors opened.

“I thought it was important to get out early and get it done,” Betty Harmon, a Davenport woman who was casting her ballot for President Barack Obama, said Thursday.

Both parties are actively courting people to fill out absentee ballot requests. Today in Cedar Rapids, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, is leading a rally for Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, with the aim to get people to vote early.

So far, Democrats are leading in the number of requests for absentee ballots, according to the Iowa Secretary of State’s office. More than 119,000 Democrats had sent requests for ballots, compared with 25,000 Republicans. More than 41,000 independents had asked for an absentee ballot.

There also will be opportunities to vote at early voting stations such as the one at the Scott County Administrative Center.

Much of the activity this morning was generated by the Obama campaign. It encouraged people to vote utilizing the social media sites Twitter and Facebook. Also, a video featuring the president and Michelle Obama, as well as actresses Ashley Judd and Gabrielle Union, was posted Tuesday on the campaign’s website encouraging Iowans to vote early.

At the corner of 4th and Gaines streets, just across the street from the administrative center, Obama supporters waved signs at passing motorists, pointing them the way to the early voting site. Volunteers, meanwhile, served coffee and cookies to people who were waiting in line.

Sally Sullivan of Bettendorf said she usually waits until Election Day to vote, but she experienced long lines four years ago.

“Now, I’m glad not to,” she said.

Judy Davidson, the Scott County Republican Party chairwoman, said the local GOP did not mount an effort to get people to show up on the first day. But she noted 200 people were at an early voting rally last Thursday.

“We’re just trying to get people out all the time,” she said.

Four years ago, 36 percent of Iowans voted before Election Day. And in Scott County, that figure was 45 percent. This election could be the first in history when more than half of the local electorate casts ballots before Election Day.

Today’s flurry of activity generated more than 200 votes this morning, Scott County Auditor Roxanna Moritz said. Four years ago, more than 85,000 people voted in Scott County, nearly 39,000 of them casting ballots early.


Early voting under way in Iowa 

EARLIER STORY: From the Associated Press: IOWA CITY — In the weeks before Election Day, University of Iowa students will have a dozen places on campus to vote for President Barack Obama or challenger Mitt Romney.

Residents in the heavily Latino city of Denison will be able to cast ballots at a Mexican grocery store. Those living in the Republican-leaning Des Moines suburbs will get to vote early at evangelical churches. And voters in the state’s most conservative county, Sioux, will be able to make their picks at a small-town library.

Iowa is one of 32 states that allow early voting, and both presidential campaigns are trying to take advantage of an unusual state law that gives political supporters a big say in where the ballots are cast. As voting begins today, the sudden profusion of conspicuously Obama-friendly or Romney-friendly polling places in this key battleground state will serve as a novel example of how the trend toward flexibility is morphing the tenets of Election Day across the nation.

Long lines of voters were reported early this morning at the Scott County Administrative Center in Davenport.

Iowa’s law allows anyone who gets the signatures of 100 county voters to choose a specific voting place in that county. Election officials must hold balloting at that site for at least one day in the 40 days before the Nov. 6 election. The law is apparently the only one of its kind in the nation, said Jennie Bowser, who tracks election law at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Both campaigns filed a batch of petitions before last week’s deadline calling for satellite voting at locations carefully chosen to make it as easy as possible for their backers to vote.

“This is substantially more than we had in the last presidential,” said Tim Box, an elections administrator in Linn County, the state’s second-largest, which received 12 petitions from the campaigns. He is preparing to operate sites at a union hall, on three college campuses and at an African-American church in response to Obama campaign petitions and at Lutheran churches where voting was sought by Romney’s backers.

Obama campaign spokeswoman Erin Seidler said the campaign is using the polling place petitions to target key parts of the electorate Obama needs to win: college students, Latinos in small towns and African-Americans in bigger cities.

“We are strategic in how we are reaching out to voters,” she said.

Romney campaign spokesman Shawn McCoy said the GOP is also spotting polling places “so that more Iowans have an opportunity to voice their support for Gov. Romney.”

In most states that allow early voting, state laws direct local election administrators to choose the polling places. They typically favor neutral sites that are accessible for the general public such as libraries and courthouses, as do Iowa officials when they pick locations on their own.

Iowa’s petition law was passed decades ago to allow residents to seek early voting in counties where officials refused to set up satellite sites. But as early voting became more popular, partisans have increasingly gamed the process in a way that critics say calls fairness into question. About 35 percent of Iowa voters cast ballots before Election Day in 2008, above the national average of 30 percent.

“It’s partisan chaos, which ought not to happen,” said Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center, a nonprofit organization in Houston that trains election officials on best practices. “I can’t fault the campaigns for figuring out the weaknesses in the law and therefore capitalizing on it. But what that does for Iowa is it gives the election a skewed process.”

The practice increased in 2010 and could intensify this cycle. In the midterm election, Republicans collected petitions for polling places at evangelical churches in Ames; two churches even opened polls during Sunday services, sparking criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union. Officials in Johnson County, a liberal stronghold that’s home to the University of Iowa, operated a record 27 petition-requested sites in 2010.

This year, Johnson County Auditor Tom Slockett received a similar deluge of petitions seeking sites at the university’s law school, residence halls, student union, main library and more. The influx of petitions has worried local elections officials, who say they cause last-minute logistical and budgeting headaches.

“I have long felt that the bar is too low to request satellite sites,” said Slockett, recalling he was once forced to host a site on the stairwell of an academic building, the only place where voting could be set up. But attempts to change the law to make it harder to petition have failed.

In Black Hawk County, Democrats petitioned to open six sites on the University of Northern Iowa campus in Cedar Falls and one site at a black church in Waterloo. Republicans petitioned for voting at the American Martyrs Retreat House, which is operated by the Catholic Church, in rural Union township. The number of petitions is up significantly from four years ago, county elections manager Kyle Jensson said.

“We’ll be scurrying to so many places,” Jensson said.

In Denison, a city of 8,300 in western Iowa that is more than 40 percent Latino, the Obama campaign petitioned to require voting at La Jalisciense Tienda grocery store and in an empty former Mexican restaurant. Crawford County Auditor Terri Martens said she worried that non-Latinos who do not shop or eat at those locations wouldn’t feel comfortable voting there.

“It seems like the purpose that this group is using it for is to yank one sector of the public out of the voting crowd and make it ultra-convenient for them,” Martens said. “My job is to make it convenient for all voters. I’m having a difficult time with this.”

Martens said she was also frustrated with the tactics the Obama operatives used to secure voting at locations they wanted.

“It was, ‘If you do this and you guarantee us these days, we won’t file any more petitions,“’ she recalled. “I was like, ‘Come on.’ It was disappointing as a registered Democrat myself.”