vision 2020

What the Early-Voting Deluge Could Mean for the Election

Long in-person early-voting lines in North Carolina. Photo: Grant Baldwin/AFP via Getty Images

Though Washington seems focused on the Amy Coney Barrett confirmation hearings and polls showing Joe Biden with a steady national lead of around ten points, “Election Day” has already begun — with unusual velocity — in much of the country. As the Associated Press reports:

More than 17 million Americans have already cast ballots in the 2020 election, a record-shattering avalanche of early votes driven both by Democratic enthusiasm and a pandemic that has transformed the way the nation votes.

The total represents 12 percent of all the votes cast in the 2016 presidential election, even as eight states are not yet reporting their totals and voters still have more than two weeks to cast ballots. Americans’ rush to vote is leading election experts to predict that a record 150 million votes may be cast and turnout rates could be higher than in any presidential election since 1908.

“It’s crazy,” said Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist who has long tracked voting for his site McDonald’s analysis shows roughly ten times as many people have voted compared with this point in 2016.

Actually, since the time this AP story appeared McDonald has updated his own estimate to show that over 21 million people have already voted. The number is likely to continue to climb rapidly as states initiate early in-person voting, which is a particularly big deal in the South.

And while breakdowns of the party affiliation of early voters are only available in some states, estimates uniformly show a very large Democratic skew, as AP also notes:

So far the turnout has been lopsided, with Democrats outvoting Republicans by a 2-1 ratio in the 42 states included in The Associated Press count.

That’s generally not surprising given President Trump’s relentless campaign to demonize voting by mail, which according to many, many polls has made Republicans much more inclined than Democrats to wait and vote in person on Election Day. But it doesn’t account for the partisan tilt in places like Colorado, where all voters receive ballots in the mail (with the option to return them in drop boxes). Per the Denver Channel:

Secretary of State Jena Griswold said 300,795 Coloradans had voted by Wednesday.

The breakdown by voter party affiliation was around 139,000 Democrats, 57,000 Republicans and the rest unaffiliated, Griswold said at a news conference with Gov. Jared Polis and other state officials, who urged Coloradans to vote.

There is evidence from Colorado and elsewhere, however, suggesting that what may be happening is that early voters — and perhaps Democrats in particular — are simply voting earlier than in the past. The Hill reports:

At this time in 2016, just 12,141 people had voted, a spokeswoman for Griswold told the Denver Post

In Colorado, which mails a ballot to every registered voter, the new voting numbers mark a 2,377 percent increase in early turnout this year compared with 2016, a rise Democratic political consultant Craig Hughes called “bonkers,” according to the Post. 

There’s similar talk about early early voting in California, another heavy voting-by-mail jurisdiction that is by no means a presidential battleground, as KCRA reports:

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Alex Padilla said over 1.5 million people have already returned their vote-by-mail ballots. His office said that marks a massive increase compared to the 150,000 ballots that were returned at the same point in the 2016 general election …

While some of the early-voting trends can be attributed to the fact that everyone in California is getting a ballot mailed to them this year, political data expert Paul Mitchell points out that Sacramento County has already mailed ballots to every voter for two previous elections. According to the county, in the 2018 primary only 15,000 people voted early compared to this election’s current tally of over 80,000 early voters.

“We definitely have seen people returning their ballots super early, much earlier than ever before,” said Mitchell.

It seems very likely that all the publicity earlier this year about problems with U.S. Postal Service delivery of ballots, and mail ballots being rejected for late receipt in 2020 primaries may be convincing voters to get that ballot in the mail (or utilize a dropbox) more rapidly than in past elections. And again, that trend may be especially evident among Democrats who have been listening fearfully to Trump and GOP threats to challenge mail ballots. In California, for example, it is usually Republican voters who dominate early voting by mail, with the famous “blue shift” occurring in later mail ballots cast disproportionately by young and minority voters who tilt Democratic.

Democrats obviously hope all these omens portend a landslide in their favor with record overall turnout. But as the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent pointed out after talking to Michael McDonald, even if what we are seeing is earlier voting from people who would have voted in any event, it could make a big difference by facilitating an earlier count of mail ballots, thwarting any Trump effort to claim victory based on misleading early returns:

[S]o many people voting early will ease the late crush that many feared due to enormous expected demand for vote-by-mail. “That’s going to help elections officials,” McDonald told me.

Above all, the more voting happens earlier, the harder it will be for Trump to play corrupt games around late-arriving ballots.

As McDonald told me, in swing states such as Florida, North Carolina and Arizona, elections officials are very likely to be able to count the mail votes quickly, in part because of their vote-counting rules, and in part because so many voters will have gotten in their ballots earlier than expected.

McDonald noted that the quick count of mail ballots in those states — particularly with so many Democrats getting in ballots early for Joe Biden — could help preempt a scenario in which Trump is leading on election night, allowing him to prematurely declare victory.

Indeed, in some states in-person early votes and mail ballots received and processed before Election Day are often counted first on Election Night. If they skew Democratic, it could be Biden rather than Trump with an early lead.

None of this resolves the problem of those battleground states (notably Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) that ban processing of mail ballots until Election Day or immediately before it. But early early voting makes it less likely that slow counts in a few states will dominate Election Night returns and the subsequent media coverage, buttressing likely Trump claims he has already won.

What the Early-Voting Deluge Could Mean for the Election