FRANKFORT — More than 11,000 Kentuckians already have cast ballots in the presidential race.
Secretary of state spokesman Les Fugate said that number is growing quickly with less than three weeks before Election Day.
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As of last week, 11,572 had voted by absentee ballots at polling stations across the state. An additional 44,382 had requested mail-in absentee ballots. Fugate said he doesn't know how many of the requested ballots have been returned to the state's 120 county clerks.
The presidential race between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, coupled with a U.S. Senate contest between GOP incumbent Mitch McConnell and Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford, has generated intense interest among voters.
Kentucky laws regarding early voting are restrictive. Only people who sign statements swearing, under penalty of perjury, that they will be unable to go to the polls on Election Day are permitted to vote early. Allowable reasons include travel or medical disabilities.
Fugate said he expects more than 100,000 Kentuckians to vote by absentee ballots before Election Day, eclipsing the number of early votes cast during the last presidential election in 2004. That, plus a new record number of Kentuckians registered to vote, suggests a huge turnout on Nov. 4.
"We have a presidential election where the top candidates disagree on how to address the major issues facing our country," Fugate said. "Secondly, we have the most expensive U.S. Senate race in Kentucky history. That is a perfect recipe for higher registrations and, hopefully, higher turnout."
Fugate said nearly 3 million Kentuckians are registered to vote in the general election. Of those, 1.7 million are signed up as Democrats and just more than 1 million as Republicans.
During the past six months, Kentucky's voter rolls have swollen by nearly 50,000 voters.
In addition to the presidential and Senate race, Kentucky voters will cast ballots in congressional races and state legislative races, plus a number of judicial contests.
Western Kentucky University political scientist Scott Lasley said he expects much of Kentucky's turnout will be driven by the Senate race.
McCain hasn't made a campaign visit to Kentucky since a June fund-raiser. Obama last visited the state in May, shortly before the primary election.
Kentucky Democratic Party chairwoman Jennifer Moore said Kentucky voters realize the candidates have 50 states to run in. "Of course, voters would rather have the candidates here so we can see them face to face," she said.
Winfield Rose, a Murray State University political science professor, said he's not surprised the presidential candidates are campaigning elsewhere. News media polls suggest McCain will easily win Kentucky, so he doesn't need to spend a great deal of time here, and Obama needs to spend his time in more competitive states.
"With only eight electoral votes, there's no reason for either candidate to spend any time or money here," Rose said.