What we do and don’t know about early voting

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But what does it mean? Here’s the most basic nutshell of what we know, what we think we know and what we know we don’t know.:

The total number of ballots cast so far represents almost 20% of the more than 136 million total ballots cast in the 2016 presidential election, according to CNN’s Political Unit. Some voter information comes from Catalist, a company that provides data, analytics and other services to Democrats, academics and nonprofit issue-advocacy organizations and is giving new insights into who is voting before November.

But while the eye-popping totals make clear that Americans are voting earlier, it is much harder to make predictions about what that will mean in terms of who will win.

In 2016, the total number of early or absentee votes was 46.1 million in 38 states for which there is data, according to Catalist.

In 2020, weeks before Election Day and before in-person early voting has even started in many key states, we’re more than halfway to that total of pre-election votes.

The early turnout wave is mirrored in battleground states. In those CNN classifies as tossup in addition to those leaning toward one party, 16 million total voted in six battlegrounds in 2016. It’s just shy of 8 million as of Monday morning, when early in-person voting was opening for the first time in parts of Florida and video showed massive lines of voters waiting in socially distanced lines wrapping around early polling places.

In 2016 in Florida, there were 6.5 million total pre-election ballots cast. Even before early in-person voting began, 2.5 million ballots, or a third of the combined pre-election 2016 total, had been returned by mail.

Democrats have requested more ballots in key places

It is possible for data firms to determine the party affiliation of absentee ballots requested in certain states and Democrats are hopeful the data suggests tremendous support for Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

Take North Carolina, the state seen as a key battleground in 2020, but which went Republican in 2012 and 2016.

In 2016 around this time, North Carolina early ballots cast were: 40% by Democrats, 32% by Republicans and 27% by people who did not identify with a party.

In 2020, there is a huge contrast that so far favors Democrats — 46% of absentee ballots cast have been by Democrats, 28% by someone who does not identify with a party and just 25% by Republicans.

Similarly, in Florida, 49% of the pre-election ballots cast are by Democrats, up from 41% in 2016, when Trump won the state. There is a corresponding dip in pre-election ballots cast by Republicans.

The Democratic advantage in absentee ballot requests extends across the states CNN rates as battlegrounds, and for which Catalist has data — 42% of the requests have come from Democrats and 31% from Republicans and 24% from people who don’t identify with a party.

In 2016, the requests were more evenly divided in those key states — it was 39% Democrat to 37% Republican and 21% not identifying with a party.

A lot of Republicans could be intentionally waiting for Election Day

The obvious asterisk to place here is that President Donald Trump has waged rhetorical war on mail-in voting this year. Polls suggest Republicans are less likely than Democrats to vote by mail, so the Democratic advantage in swing state ballot requests is interesting, but not predictive of anything.
“The issue is that we really don’t know the extent to which the early vote will be more Democratic-leaning than the overall tally,” CNN’s Harry Enten wrote over the weekend.

Georgia, which no Democratic presidential candidate has won since Bill Clinton in 1992, is newly a battleground in 2020 and the pre-election voting turnout is up 152%, according to the state secretary of state, and absentee voting by mail is up 648% compared to 2016 levels.

The state where the most early votes have already been cast is Texas, with more than 4 million. Early voting was extended by a nearly week there in 2020 to help election officials deal with the pandemic. In a normal year early voting would not yet have begun.
The Texas Tribune has been paying close attention to the data there and points out that Harris County, which includes Houston and will be a key stronghold for Democrats, has shown remarkable growth in early voting between 2016 and 2020.

But, according to the Tribune, the count that’s seen the largest increase between 2016 and 2020 is Denton County, which is largely rural and more likely to support Trump.

Biden’s campaign manager urged against complacency in a series of tweets and argued the race is very close.

“The reality is that this race is far closer than some of the punditry we’re seeing on Twitter and on TV would suggest,” Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon wrote in a memo to supporters. “In the key battleground states where this election will be decided, we remain neck and neck with Donald Trump.”

Counting votes could take a while in some key states

The other unknown outcome of the massive switch to early voting during the pandemic is what effect it will have on determining the winner in particular states on election night.

Perhaps sensing an opening here, Trump has tried to argue that whoever appears to be the winner on election night should be the winner, even though that goes against the democratic idea that votes should be counted, state laws that give weeks or more for vote counting, and US law which lays out a specific post-election calendar.

While the large amount of early in-person voting should make determining a winner easier in some states, the differing rules about when mail-in votes can be received — about half of states will accept votes postmarked on November 3 for days or even weeks after Election Day — could drag the process out in those states.

And there has been a growing “blue shift” in US elections. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s popular vote margin grew in the days after Election Day as votes trickled in. In 2018, Arizona Republican Martha McSally appeared on election night to have more votes than Democrat Kyrsten Sinema for the state’s US Senate seat, but Sinema won when all the ballots were counted.

How long it takes to count these mail-in votes could vary from state to state.

Key states like Florida, North Carolina and Georgia can start processing absentee votes before when they are received or a certain number of days before November d. That means they can be counted more quickly on Election Day.

But other key states are at a major logistical disadvantage because they can’t even start the process of organizing and verifying mail-in absentee ballots until Election Day or even when polls close on Election Day. Pennsylvania and Michigan can’t do it until Election Day. Wisconsin can’t do it before polls close on Election Day.

Trump’s campaign argues it’s right where it needs to be on early voting.

“We feel better about our pathway to victory right now than we have at any point in the campaign this year. And this optimism is based on numbers and data, not feel, not sense,” Trump’s campaign manager Bill Stepien told reporters on a conference call Monday.

The message is clear from both campaigns: the early vote is not the final vote.

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