It is two weeks before Election Day (November 8), and millions of Americans have already cast their votes for the next U.S. president.

And yes, those votes are completely legal.

New data from the Pew Research Center indicates that more than 4 million ballots had been cast by October 22.

Americans typically have two ways to vote even if they can’t make it to the polls on Election Day.

  1. Early voting, which means a state has designated places where people can go to vote prior to Election Day.
  2. Absentee voting, in which a voter typically requests to complete the ballot and mails it in before the election.

This year, before Election Day arrives, the number of early votes could swell beyond 50 million, the most ever. Experts expect the overall voter turnout will be at least 130 million ballots. If those numbers hold, it would mean that 38 percent of the votes for the next president will have been cast as early or absentee votes.

Four years ago, in the last presidential election, nearly 33 percent of voters used one of those methods, up from about 10 percent in 1996, according to U.S. census data.

In some states, that percentage has been higher. More than half of ballots cast in the 2012 election in Nevada, Arizona, Texas, North Carolina, Montana, New Mexico and Tennessee were either early or absentee, according to Pew researchers.

Decentralized system

Unlike most democracies, the U.S. does not have a centrally administered electoral system, meaning each state — and in some cases, even each county — determines how and when residents can vote. This decentralized system makes voter fraud less likely.

Rules and dates differ by state, but more than half of the 50 states allow some form of early or absentee voting, either in person or by mail-in ballots.

Oregon, Washington and Colorado conduct their elections entirely through posted ballots.

California and the District of Columbia allow their residents to vote early either in person or through the mail, while others allow only one method.

Absentee voting began more than a century ago, during the American Civil War, as a way soldiers in combat could send their ballots back home. By the mid-20th century, most states had adopted some form of absentee voting, although it was restricted, usually requiring specific evidence that a voter is unable to cast a ballot in person on Election Day.

California, Oregon and Washington were among the first states in the 1970s and 1980s to allow voters to cast absentee ballots without providing a specific reason, such as out-of-town travel on Election Day, temporary residence abroad, physical infirmity or job requirements. Today, 27 states and the District of Columbia allow “no excuse necessary” absentee voting for their residents.

Want to know more about U.S. elections? Here’s where you can learn about the process from start to finish, including the peaceful transition of power to the next president.