To date, more than 80 million Americans have voted in 2020, a turnout so huge that at the time of reading the number may be out of date.
The early voting in 2020 has already far exceeded the total number of early votes in 2016. The rise in early voting shows that 2020 voter turnout could be the highest in a century, at around 65 percent of the eligible population, or around 150 million voters.
And in 2016, voter turnout wasn't exactly shoddy: around 60 percent of those eligible to vote voted.
"We're seeing a very energetic, interested electorate, and we're seeing a public responding to a message that you need to get this ballot in place earlier this year," said Paul Gronke, professor of political science at Reed College, who was the early voter Information center operates said.
Enthusiasm among both Democratic and Republican voters is high. President Donald Trump is the reason: his supporters are extremely motivated to re-elect their husband and the other side are extremely motivated to elect him.
A voter casts a ballot in Washington DC on October 27th. Tom Williams / CQ appeal via Getty Images
Voters also included the "early voting" policy, which was likely motivated by security concerns about voting during the coronavirus pandemic and rhetoric about the integrity of the electoral system, from the Trumpian attacks on mail-in votes to democratic ones Concerns about dysfunctional US Postal Service.
But instead of keeping people from voting, it could bring them to the polls now. "People react – fortunately not by not casting a ballot, but by casting an early ballot," added Gronke.
Beyond voter turnout, the data on early voting only provide partial and incomplete information on the electorate in 2020. They provide information about who is voting how and where on the voting card. What it absolutely cannot do is predict the thing that annoys many: Who will actually win?
That has to wait at least until election day and very likely many days afterwards. In the meantime, Vox is here to answer any questions you have about the early voting: what it looks like, what it means, and whether this election year could radically change the way America votes forever.
1) What does an early vote look like in 2020?
Due to a combination of the coronavirus pandemic and increased enthusiasm, early voting and mail-in voting are more popular than ever. Last week, 11 days before the election, the number of early votes officially exceeded the number of votes brought forward for 2016. Now, Less than a week before election day, more than 80 million people cast their votes early – more than half of the total turnout in 2016.
All states offered early voting or mail-in options, although specific rules and deadlines vary by state. Nine states – California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, and Washington – plus Washington, DC, sent ballots out to all eligible voters. Some others – Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas – needed specific reasons to get a postal vote.
In some states, early voting numbers are approaching the total turnout for 2016, including Texas (94 percent of the 2016 turnout) and Montana (86 percent). and North Carolina (81 percent), suggesting the overall turnout may be higher than 2016.
2) How many people vote by post or in person?
The majority of early votes are in the form of postal ballot papers, which, according to the US election project by Michael McDonald of the University of Florida, make up two-thirds of the 80 million early votes.
Trump has tried to discredit this type of voting through a disinformation campaign, but email election fraud is extremely rare. The mail-in option was also affected by delays in the postal service. If you have a mail-in voting slip that you haven't submitted yet, don't send it in the mail. Instead, you should drop it off at a polling station now or vote in person to make sure your vote is counted.
To a lesser extent, people have also chosen to vote in person before the elections, 28 million so far. High voter turnout for early voting can be seen in long lines across the country.
3) Who exactly is voting early?
According to the US election project, Democrats emerged early on to be nearly twice as likely as Republicans in the 20 states where party registration is reported.
However, this data is likely to be skewed by the inclusion of states like California (a very populous and democratic state) and the unavailability of data from states like Texas (also very populous and republican).
TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm that uses voter data in addition to consumer data to model early voter demographics in states where that information is not available, shows Democrats are nearly 10 percentage points ahead of Republicans. Of course, while partisan membership is an indication of how a person might vote, it does not guarantee that a person will vote for their party's candidates.
Perhaps most notable is the early turnout for people who didn't vote in 2016. "Over 16 million people have already voted who didn't vote in 2016," Tom Bonier, CEO of TargetSmart, told Vox earlier this week. "These are the people who have the opportunity to change the composition of the electorate compared to 2016."
Only a quarter of these new voters are under 30, which suggests that they are not just people who are new to the voting age. These new voters, he said, are also more likely to be Democrats and more Asian or Hispanic than the electorate as a whole. This group also includes seniors over 65 who may have left office in 2016. Some of those voters returned in the meantime in 2018, part of the reason for the "blue wave" back then, Bonier said, but they will return in 2020.
Younger voters are also emerging, and according to Kristian Lundberg, Associate Researcher at the Center for Information Research and Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), this is an “astronomical” difference to 2016. In Texas, for example, more than 750,000 voters voted as of last week ages 18-29 at the start of this election, compared to just over 100,000 who voted in early 2016.
4) What problems do we see with early voting?
The biggest headlines from early voting are long lines, long lines, long lines. Long lines are sometimes celebrated as a sign of high electoral enthusiasm. Pandemic security protocols, fewer polling stations, and a shortage of electoral workers in some places are also slowing the process down. Sometimes technical malfunctions at the voting venues cause delays that spread throughout the day.
And observers often point out the hours of waiting many voters face as part of a pattern of voter suppression.
Voters in many of America's peer democracies do not stand in line for hours to cast their votes, and supporters of the U.S. vote believe reforms like extending early voting and standardizing some voting procedures and resources could shorten waiting times. This would also reduce more shameful repression tactics, such as reducing the number of polling stations in minority neighborhoods.
In 2020, experts see a combination of the problems that have long plagued the US vote, along with the unpredictable realities of this strange year of voting in a pandemic.
Voters line up outside Philadelphia City Hall to cast their early ballots. October 27. Mark Makela / Getty Images
Megan Dominy with her daughters offers water and snacks to people waiting in line to cast their ballots in Smyrna, Georgia on October 24th. Elijah Nouvelage / AFP via Getty Images
As a rule, states open many more polling stations on election day than in the early election period. Electoral officials must do their best to anticipate how many people will vote and when, but this is always an incomplete exercise. And especially in locations that are just trying early voting for the first time or that offer advanced options for voting by email, it can be difficult to accurately predict voter turnout and rush hour.
Ivelisse Cuevas-Molina, assistant professor of political science at Fordham University, pointed out that the lines are long in New York, but the state is also voting early for the first time in a presidential election. Some mounting pain can be expected as the state adapts to a new system.
"But in places like Georgia, where they've been voting early for a while, we should see more efficiency," she said. "And if you don't see efficiency in places like Georgia when you vote early, you can conclude that in a place that is meant to be experienced, there is voter suppression going on."
Technical glitches are also occurring, such as this one in Fulton County, Georgia, which resulted in delays as officials had to restart the software. Officials in Fort Bend County, Texas, were forced to extend election times at the start of early voting due to a technical error. Problems like these crop up in a few places and add to waiting times – although this is a major benefit of coordinating early. It is usually not the last chance someone will vote.
Finally, some voter supporters have raised concerns about voter intimidation, due to Trump's rhetoric about election fraud and his encouragement to supporters to "watch the polls."
In Pinellas County, Florida, police officers dispatched sheriff MPs to polling stations after two armed security guards claiming to represent the Trump campaign walked to a polling station. (The Trump campaign denied any affiliation with any statement to reporters.) In Pennsylvania, the Trump campaign video recorded voters dropping ballots in what could potentially be illegal voter intimidation.
So there have been some disturbing examples of potential voter intimidation, but so far no large-scale threats to voters. Intimidating voters is always illegal, and voting supporters say voters should report possible violations. The election protection hotline is a helpful resource.
5) How about problems with voting by email?
Mail-in reconciliations are a little more complicated to keep track of because only a few states like Florida have started processing mail-in reconciliations. Many other states, including swing states of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, cannot process or count ballots until election day.
The biggest problem with mail-in ballots is the rejection rate – which is the number of ballots that are thrown out (for whatever reason) as a percentage of the total submitted.
Mail-in ballots typically have a higher rejection rate than ballots given at polling stations. This is not because of electoral fraud, but because people are people and make mistakes. Mail-in ballots can be rejected in some states if a voter's electoral signature does not match that on their voter registration file. Sometimes voters forget to sign at all or use the wrong color ink. And many ballot papers are disqualified because they are late to be counted.
In 2016, slightly less than 1 percent of the 33.4 million postal ballot papers submitted were rejected. However, the number of people voting by mail this year is much higher – more than 51 million people cast postal ballots in 2020 – and that likely includes many voters who have never mailed postal ballots before.
"There is definitely a concern this year that there will be higher rejection rates for ballots as new people vote in the mail and mistakes are made," said Gronke. If the race is very close in certain swing states, this rejection rate can be the difference between winning and losing. Remember, Trump won three states in 2016 with less than 80,000 votes.
Gabriel R. Sanchez, professor of political science at the University of New Mexico and director of Latino Decisions, said that because of his data, Latinos, African American and younger voters are among those whose postal votes are more likely to have problems they throw.
"This is obviously something that affects a lot of people," he said. "Regardless of the element of horse racing, only in relation to those parts of the electorate who feel they have counted their votes."
Still, the “your vote counts” rhetoric has likely helped motivate voters to make sure their ballots are accepted. Election officials and electoral officials have stressed the need for voters to fill in ballots carefully, and many states allow voters to track their ballots to ensure they are received, processed and accepted. "Healing processes" have also been put in place in most places so that voters can fix any discrepancies or mistakes that may have resulted in their ballots being rejected.
Poll workers inspect postal ballots for irregularities at the Los Angeles County Registrar Recorders Inbox Processing Center in Pomona, California. Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images
Los Angeles County officials moved postal ballot processing to an expansive location due to the need for social distancing from Covid-19 for election workers and the large number of postal ballot papers. Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images
However, experts point out that these procedures are far from perfect and some are still in litigation. For example, election officials may not have the current phone number or email address of a voter to quickly contact them if their ballot is rejected.
Sanchez said his data shows some Latino voters, for example, had to change their addresses due to the financial hardship of Covid-19 which means they may never receive the message that there is a problem with their voting should one arise.
And while ballot papers can be "cured" for signature problems or other errors, there is nothing voters can do if their ballots arrive at polling stations after the deadline. (If you still plan to vote using a postal ballot, you will need to drop it off at a designated location.)
TargetSmart's Bonier said there is no evidence so far that a disproportionate number of postal ballots have been rejected this year. "But the lack of evidence does not match the absence of this phenomenon," he said.
"The hope is that these numbers will be reasonably low," he added. "But unfortunately I think that we only know about many of these places until we get there."
6) What does this mean for overall voter turnout in 2020?
The early turnout in 2020 is unprecedented.
In 2016, around 41 percent of voters cast their ballots before election day, which, according to the US Electoral Assistance Commission, corresponds to around 24 percent by mail and 17 percent who voted early personally.
So far, voters in 2020 have cast more than half of the total number of votes in 2016, and early voting extends over the weekend in many places. So expect millions more people to vote earlier this year than in 2016. Plus around a third of voters are likely to vote on election day, according to the Democracy Fund.
"It's huge, of course, and on a scale we've never seen before," said John Fortier, director of government studies at the Bipartisan Policy Center and author of Absence and Early Voting: Trends, Promises, and Dangers. "And I usually warn people we shouldn't read the tea leaves about voting too early. Of course, you could see a lot of people showing up early and the other people not showing up later – and then we don't have a higher turnout."
A polling officer assists a voter in Washington, DC. Tom Williams / CQ appeal via Getty Images
"But I mean, the buzz here and the crowd we see just isn't on the charts," he added.
Fortier also pointed out that the novelty of the new voting method – whether early or by mail – can sometimes generate interest and excitement, so that "there is a swarm at the beginning of this period" that could taper off earlier on election day.
Of course, this year is also different because of the coronavirus. "People are obviously getting the news – I think good news – that there is an incentive to get your vote early," said Fortier. "We also tend to see very early voters as those most committed to candidates or parties."
But for all that, forecasters still believe the United States could reach a 65 percent turnout – which while still leaving many voters out, could be the highest in a century.
The turnout in 2016 was around 60 percent with around 137 million people. The FiveThirtyEight website predicts voter turnout of around 154 million people based on voter enthusiasm surveys and other data. It could still be a record, and anything in the high 60s or a turnout of nearly 70 percent, Fortier said, "would be just extraordinary."
7) What does this mean for the election result?
Not much! We're sorry to disappoint those of you who really want to read the tea leaves, but the reality is that the early voting data just isn't helpful in predicting the outcome of the election.
Yes, Democrats have an advantage in early voting overall. Registered Democrats used to vote at a higher rate than Republicans, but that number is decreasing.
Democrats vote in much larger numbers by mail, which is a big reason why they have such a huge advantage in early voting. This was expected given that President Donald Trump's false but repeated claims of electoral fraud were filtered down to his supporters. So Republicans are showing up for an early personal vote, and more are expected to come out on election day.
A voter shows his support for President Trump in Old Forge, Pennsylvania. Kena Betancur / AFP via Getty Images
A voter shows her support for Joe Biden in Brooklyn, New York. Pablo Monsalve / VIEWpress via Getty Images
"I think we can safely say at this point that Republicans are more likely to vote in person, be it early in person or on election day," said TargetSmart's Bonier. "But then the remaining question remains: will enough of them do this to offset the democratic advantage that comes from the postal vote, which in some of these states has hundreds of thousands of votes?"
Perhaps not nationally – especially with populous blue states like California in the mix. But it doesn't matter, because America doesn't elect the presidents in the referendum. And in places like Florida, Republicans oppose early Democratic leadership.
Again, party registration itself is an incomplete metric because it doesn't predict with certainty whether someone will vote for Biden or Trump. And not all voters join a political party; Disconnected voters cast about a quarter of all early votes in states where this data is available.
Do yourself a favor and do not try to make predictions about the outcome of this choice based on early voting trends as it will be hugely stressful yet completely fruitless.
8) Ugh, okay, good. But what does all this early voting mean for how soon we will know the election results? Could that at least come early?
We will know the results when we know the results.
Depending on how the voting card shrugs off, it may be possible to get a feel for whether Biden or Trump won on election night. However, it is more likely that the election of an official winner will take much longer if the polls are very short, even if some news organizations nominate an alleged winner.
States have different rules for processing and counting votes, and this will make a huge difference in the way results are reported. Some states, such as Florida and Arizona, have already started processing and counting postal ballot papers. North Carolina has also started ballot processing – basically making sure the ballot is accepted and matched with voter records – and while it can't count until election day, it's easier to put the ballots in counting machines. However, states such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania cannot begin processing postal ballot papers until election day. Michigan can begin processing ballot papers the day before election day.
These differences in vote counting could lead to some “illusions” – both red and blue.
Voters fill out their ballots on October 27 at an early voting center in Washington, DC. Caroline Brehman / CQ Appeal via Getty Images
Since Democrats have an advantage in voting early, especially when voting by mail, states like Florida and North Carolina could very well publish results that seem favorable to Democrats early in the night. This could be something called a "blue mirage," where it looks like Biden is winning a state like North Carolina just to see those results tighten and worsen.
Meanwhile, a "red mirage" could appear elsewhere on the map, particularly in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, which process and count ballots much later. The opposite phenomenon could occur here: a “red mirage” could give the impression that Trump is way ahead just to see his lead shrink. It will take much, much longer for ballots to be counted in these states, and it may take days for an alleged winner to be determined.
Election officials are preparing for it. Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said she is urging counties to update their election results regularly, rather than all at once, to avoid massive postponements that could fuel conspiracy theories.
However, it is important for voters to expect them to wait.
9) Will early voting in all of its forms be a permanent thing now?
2020 is a really unusual year: a pandemic, an economic crisis, a political rhetoric that undermines democracy and leaves people afraid of being disenfranchised. All of this makes it difficult to know whether this year's early voting explosion is an outlier or the beginning of a new normal.
Experts pointed out that the number of people voting early, in person or by post, was already gradually increasing, and even without all of the crises that had emerged this year, an increase was expected. This year everything has been charged: voters who normally vote have chosen to vote by email. And many, many states have changed to make voting easier by mail.
What emerged from the need could become more permanent as both voters and electoral officials recognize that there may be better ways to hold elections. Once you've made it easier for people to vote in the mail or in person, they just won't want to go back.
This is the "getting used to" effect, like Gronke, Reed College's Early Voter Information Center, call it. “When people cast their vote using one of these new methods, they tend to do it again. So I think we're going to see a lot of people who previously thought, "Oh, polling stations are the way to do this," vote in the mail (this year) and say, "Wow, that was easy." That was very convenient. I liked that. "So I think this will be a permanent shift."
Black Lives Matter protesters display their I VOTED wristbands after leaving their polling station in Louisville, Kentucky on October 13th. Jon Cherry / Getty Images
And it's not just voters. Election officials could also have some revelations, especially when it comes to postal voting. That way, it is easier to elect and keep people busy, and it can be much cheaper than voting in person. "In countries like Nevada, Montana, New Jersey, Vermont, DC, those states that have temporarily switched to all-mail ballot papers, it's possible that they will choose to do this more permanently in the future because it's just cheaper "said Michael McDonald of the US election project.
Gronke predicts another surge in electoral reform, similar to what happened after the 2000 election, and the Florida recount in the race between George W. Bush and Al Gore, including possible federal proposals to expand suffrage. House Democrats have already passed a suffrage bill, and should Democrats recapture Congress and the White House, they are likely to make it a top priority.
However, the 2020 elections showed that partisanship has also invaded the way people vote, not just who they vote. So far, Democrats have largely preferred postal votes, while Republicans have preferred to vote in person, also because of the president's rhetoric. Depending on the election results, these differences could worsen and become an obstacle to reform.
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