The pace of early voting in Iowa is brisk.

“It’s off the charts,” says Secretary of State Matt Schultz, the state’s commissioner of elections.

Schultz expects over 40 percent of the votes cast in the 2012 election will be cast before Election Day, with absentee ballots.

“There are just a lot of absentee ballot request forms being turned in,” Schultz says. “We think it’s going to — obviously — increase over the next few weeks.”

According to the latest data from the secretary of state’s office, absentee ballot requests are “outpacing 2008 by well over 50 percent.” In the 2008 presidential election, 32 percent of the votes cast in Iowa were absentee or “early” ballots. That increased to 35 percent in 2010.

“We see absentee numbers increasing every…general election,” Schultz says. “It’s convenient for voters and the parties — the Democratic and Republican Parties — are both pushing people to vote absentee, so I don’t think it’s surprising to anybody.”

According to Schultz, Democrats jumped out to an early — and “significant” — lead in the number of absentee ballots when early voting began September 27. He says Republicans have begun to eat into that lead.

“(Republicans) were pretty far behind, so clearly they got their act together here and are starting to increase,” Schultz says. “But Democrats are still out-performing Republicans on absentee ballots by a wide margin.”

A spokesman for the Romney campaign in Iowa says Republicans added 23,000 early votes last week alone and have cut the Democratic Party’s advantage in half. The latest data from state election officials indicates 115,000 registered Democrats already have cast an absentee ballot, compared to 62,000 registered Republicans who’ve already voted early. That’s a 53,000 vote advantage for Democrats.

Republicans who’re running absentee ballot efforts say Democrats started a month before September 27 to tout early voting, while the GOP waited to kick off its early voting drive in Iowa on September 27, the first day when ballots could be cast at a county auditor’s office or a satellite voting station. Schultz, a Republican who oversees voting statewide, cautions against jumping to any conclusions.

“I’m not sure the data tells us anything right now,” Schultz says. “Both campaigns are working hard and I think we’ll just see this number increase from both sides, so I think it’s hard to make any predictions from this data other than to say that we’re definitely going to have a huge turnout in absentee ballots.”

The Romney campaign points to significant early voting activity in two key Iowa counties where John McCain beat Barack Obama in 2008. Early voting is 23 percent higher in Pottawattamie County — the Council Bluffs area — this year. In Dallas County — the area that sits to the west of Des Moines and includes growing suburbs like West Des Moines and Waukee — absentee and early voting activity is 33 percent higher than expected according to the Romney campaign.

A break-out of voting in Iowa’s four congressional districts finds the pace of early voting is slowest in the 4th district where Republican Congressman Steve King faces Democratic challenger Christie Vilsack. About 35,000 absentee ballots have been returned in that district. In each of the other three congressional districts, between 43,000 and 45,000 early votes have been cast.

The Obama campaign has booked a steady stream of Hollywood actors, like Jason Alexander and Justin Long, to make get-out-the-vote appearances in Iowa.  This Thursday, Bruce Springsteen will hold a concert in Ames on behalf of the Obama campaign.
“It’s just another attempt of ours to make sure every person gets out there and votes,” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said during an interview with Radio Iowa.

First Lady Michelle Obama cast her ballot early and tweeted about it yesterday.  

“And the president announced that he’s going to early vote on the 25th of October when he’s back home in Chicago,” Messina said.

This marks the first time a president has voted before Election Day.

“Everyone knows that Election Day now happens for several days, or weeks, depending on what state you’re in and in Iowa you can take advantage of early vote,” Messina said.

According to Messina, President Obama will use tonight’s debate with Mitt Romney to outline proposals to “move the middle class forward.”

At six o’clock tonight Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker will visit a Republican calling center and talk with volunteers. Rather than movie stars and recording artists, the Romney campaign has brought in some of Romney’s sons and elected Republican office-holders to boost get-out-the-vote efforts here. Tomorrow, for example, House Speaker John Boehner will be in Coralville a couple of hours after President Obama speaks at Cornell College. 

(This story was updated at 2:36 p.m. with additional information.)