MARTINSBURG, WV —
Joe Brookreson stands at the table, pensive, reading a cookbook, his wife looking over his shoulder.
"I'm looking in that container?" asks Susan Brookreson. A ball of dough is rising in a bowl on the counter beside them.
Joe is sharing the instructions for how to prepare wheat bread with his wife.
"Oh, there are two rises," Joe realizes. This means he may not be able to return home after casting his vote for president - his early vote, that is - in time to supervise the baking. "Doggone it."
Joe had planned to drive 15 minutes to Martinsburg, West Virginia, for early voting and then return home to bake the bread, but the extra leavening time is complicating his schedule. Susan reassures him: "Go. Your voting is more important."
40% expected to vote before Election Day
November 8 is more than a week away, but around the United States, many people like Joe Brookreson are running to the polls to vote. Voting started as early as September 23 in some places, and is now permitted in 37 states and the District of Columbia. Each state establishes its own procedures and dates.
In 1992, only seven percent of Americans voted early, typically through absentee ballots, which usually could only be obtained for a good reason, such as illness or being far from home on Election Day. This year about 40% of all American voters are expected to complete their ballots well before most polls open on November 8. With no reason necessary.
Jeremy Mayer, an associate professor at George Mason University's Schar School of Policy and Government in Virginia, says early voting fits into the modern, fast-paced U.S. lifestyle. "People don't want to go to the store to buy something if they can click a button and get it online," he says, "but since we can't have online voting and since we won't shift Election Day to a holiday, early voting is the best way to ensure that more Americans turn out to vote."
Watch related video report from VOA's Chris Simkins:
Avoiding Election Day lines
It is midday and Brookreson joins a line of 30 others who appreciate the ease of early voting. Tanara Powell says she is here on the first day of early voting so she doesn't have to worry about long lines on November 8. "And I get easy parking," says the Democratic voter, a Hillary Clinton supporter.
Powell and Brookreson stand next to the Berkeley County Courthouse, waiting to enter the voter registration office. Inside, 20 volunteers direct them to one of 15 voting booths.
Bruce Jones of Glengary, West Virginia, walks out of the voting office with a big smile on his face and a felt cowboy hat on his head. He says he cast his early vote for Republican Donald Trump because "the country's all trussed up like a turkey between corruption and regulations the government put in place."
Elaine Roussos of Hedgesville, West Virginia, is for Hillary Clinton, and is tired of the meanness of the election. "It's hard to understand we've gotten that low in politics."
Big early turnout
Unhappiness with this year's campaign is what Bonnie Woodfall has heard from many. As the Berkeley County Chief Deputy of Elections, she barely gets a break during early voting days because of the steady stream of voters waiting in long lines. She says everything so far has the "feel" of the 2008 election, when Barack Obama first won the presidency over Republican John McCain. "In 2008, we had voters lined up down both ends of the street! I predict we will surpass those numbers." Even on the subsequent days when it was pouring rain, West Virginians patiently lined up to vote early.
The same high turnout shocked election officials in Washington. "We had a record-breaking 2,500 voters in one location Saturday!" says the Board of Elections' Tamara Robinson. The District of Columbia keeps a constantly updated directory on its website, showing the wait time at each location. A recent check showed a 30-minute queue at several locations, but no wait at all at others.
Maryland set a new record when its early-voting period began on Thursday - more than 125,000 ballots in a single day. Texas also set a record on its first day, with twice as many citizens turning out as there were for the first day of early voting in 2012. The numbers grew even higher on the second day. Those voting early in Tennessee got a boost from the "Tennessee Kid" himself. Justin Timberlake posted on Facebook that he flew from Los Angeles to Memphis to vote early. The pop music superstar wrote, "No excuses, my good people!"
A boon for busy people
Mayer, the government professor from Virginia, says early voting makes elections more accessible for all. "If you’re a low-income mother who is working minimum wage and paying for day care, then waiting in line for one or two hours on the presidential election date is outside your budget," he said. "But if you are a corporate CEO, or a college professor who controls his own schedule, voting is not a burden."
Doug Keller can relate to that. "I work second shift," he says. "So early voting is more convenient."
Back in West Virginia, Joe Brookreson's day went as planned. After voting he even got in a round of golf before returning home to enjoy a slice of warm bread with sharp cheddar cheese. The retired dentist has never missed an election and is quick to give voting advice: "I don't care whom you vote for. Write in your own name. Just go vote."