WASHINGTON — The raw numbers are staggering. As of Tuesday afternoon, at least 69 million Americans had already voted in the 2020 election. With six days left until polls close on the night of November 3rd, experts estimate about 40 percent of the votes are already in.
So what does this surge in early voting mean for the final outcome? Are Americans turning out in record numbers — or are they just choosing to vote early? What do the early-vote numbers tell us about the likely final result in key battleground states? What about in states like Georgia, Arizona, and Texas, once-red bastions that Democrats are trying to turn purple?
Rolling Stone interviewed experts in voter turnout, mail-in voting, and the demographics of the American electorate to better understand this year’s off-the-charts early turnout numbers and what they might mean for the presidential race and control of Congress.
Does this mean more voters in total? Or just the same voters at different times?
In some states, the early vote will soon surpass the entire turnout for 2016. Texas is at a staggering 87 percent of its overall vote total from four years ago; Georgia is at 71 percent; Florida, North Carolina, Arizona, Montana, and Tennessee are somewhere between 60 and 75 percent. Again, this is with up to six days of voting left to go.
Michael McDonald, a University of Florida professor who runs the U.S. Elections Project, a real-time repository of national voting data, says that in this pandemic election year, the shift in voting behavior from casting ballots in-person to voting by mail is only part of the story behind the spike in early voting. Even with the high number of votes cast in the past three weeks, he says he still expects high turnout in the final days before Election Day, including from Trump voters and young people.
McDonald says he’s expecting roughly 150 million people to vote in 2020, which would be the highest number of voters in raw terms in the history of the country — but also the highest turnout rate for those eligible to vote since 1908. By comparison, 137 million people voted for president in 2016, 129 million did in 2012, and 131 million did in 2008. And McDonald isn’t the only election expert predicting historic levels of turnout. Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight recently projected the estimated 2020 turnout to be 154 million.
One way to think about these predictions — and they are just that: predictions — is that the swell of voter excitement that swept the country in 2018, delivering the highest turnout in a midterm election in four decades, never abated in the final two years of Donald Trump’s first term. “We’re really looking at a historic modern election in terms of turnout,” McDonald tells Rolling Stone.
Is the early-vote turnout better for Biden or for Trump?
Historically, mail-in voting has never been shown to have a partisan advantage, says Bob Stein, a political scientist at Rice University. In certain states such as Arizona and Florida, Republicans pioneered and perfected the use of mail-in voting, driving up voter turnout especially among older voters. Indeed, experts say it’s typically Republicans who make the most use of early mail-in voting while Democrats tend to vote early in-person or on Election Day.
The opposite is true so far this year. According to the U.S. Elections Project, registered Democrats had a 10-million ballot-request lead over registered Republicans in states that report party registration. (Another 16 million ballots were requested by voters without a party affiliation.) What’s more, according to data collected by the consulting firm TargetSmart, many more Democrats have returned their mail ballots than Republicans to date.
Depending on the state, the Democratic advantage in early voting so far doesn’t necessarily translate into support down the ticket for Democratic candidates. In Texas, for instance, there’s a dropoff in support between presidential nominee Joe Biden and Democratic Senate candidate M.J. Hegar among voters who had already cast their ballots, according to a new University of Houston poll. In other words, strong early support for Biden doesn’t necessarily translate into down-ballot support for House and Senate candidates.
For Trump, the lopsided early-voting returns mean he and his allies have their work cut out for them in the final stretch of the race. After months of fear-mongering and conspiracy theorizing about the U.S. Postal Service and the “MASSIVE FRAUD AND ABUSE” triggered by widespread mail-in voting (there is no evidence for this claim), it appears Trump has succeeded mostly at dissuading his own supporters from casting a mail-in ballot. A recent survey of voters by the University of Wisconsin’s Elections Research Center found a massive lead for Biden in early voting in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. While Trump enjoys more support among people who still plan to vote, that margin “is not large enough to compensate for Biden’s advantage in the early vote,” the University of Wisconsin researchers found.
Lately, Trump’s campaign has reversed course and urged Republicans to vote by mail, but that change of tune may have come too late. His campaign manager, Bill Stepien, now says they’re focusing on their on-the-ground voter mobilization efforts. “Early leads built by Democrats in the absentee voting period, we know that, we’ve seen that, we expected that, it still drew a lot of attention by those who cover these races,” Stepien recently said. “But more importantly, every single day we see that early lead that the Democrats once had eaten up as they leave absentee votes on the table because they don’t have a ground game to draw those votes and turn those ballots into actual votes.”
Still, voting experts say it’s risky to bank on in-person voting close to or on Election Day in the middle of a pandemic — and hoping there isn’t bad weather, long lines, or late-breaking controversy — to make up the lost ground in early voting. “I think they’ve played an extremely dangerous game,” says Rice University’s Bob Stein.
What does it mean for us finding out the results and being confident in them?
This is mostly good news for the thousands of election officials across the country tasked with ensuring a timely and accurate vote count, says Michael McDonald.
In this pandemic election year, there were more than 80 million mail-in ballots sent to voters in anticipation of the November general election. That created the potential for a late deluge of mail-in ballots that could overwhelm election officials and lead to a drawn-out vote-counting process after November 3rd. But with so many ballots cast weeks ahead of time, election officials in states with more up-to-date laws have time to process all those ballots.
Several key battleground states have not modernized their laws for processing and counting mail-in ballots in time for the 2020 election. Whereas in Florida we should expect to know 99 percent of the total vote to be reported on election night, McDonald says, that almost surely won’t be the case in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, which don’t start processing mail-in ballots until the day of the election. Michigan’s secretary of state has said she expects to finish the vote count by the Friday after election day.
And of course, if Florida, say, is so close it triggers a recount, the outcome there might not be decided for days or weeks. “That’s the long-haul doomsday legal battle,” McDonald adds.
What are the big uncertainties in the final week of voting?
The voting experts interviewed by Rolling Stone offered several unknowns when it comes to interpreting the early-voting totals and what they mean for the final outcome.
Experts say it’s possible — but not likely — the surge in early voting fizzles out in the final week before November 3rd. That would mean that Michael McDonald’s and Nate Silver’s turnout projections were off the mark, and that the impressive early-voting totals were merely a shift in behavior and not an uptick in voter enthusiasm.
McDonald says people who don’t have a party affiliation have yet to turn out in proportion to their share of voters. He says there are also lingering questions about whether young voters will turn out en masse. Two weeks out from the election, voters aged 18 to 29 made up a smaller percentage of the total early vote than they did in 2016. However, in the last few days, even the youth vote — which tends to spike right before an election — has climbed.
More than 6 million ballots have been cast by 18- to 29-year-old voters so far, almost three times the amount that were cast at this point in 2016, according to TargetSmart. As of this writing, the youth vote now makes up 10 percent of the total early vote, which is also higher than it was at the same point before the 2016 and 2018 elections. “There is definitely a spike in early voting for young people,” says John Holbein, a University of Virginia professor and author of the book Making Young Voters.
The biggest question mark of all, then, is what the Trump campaign and its lawyers might do if the race is close. Politico reported that Trump’s legal team were preparing for a litigation blitz that could seek to throw out votes based on how they were processed by local election officials, the authenticity of ballots themselves, and whether the ballots were received on time.
“If the race is close, Trump and his campaign could file lawsuits and use evidence of election administrator incompetence to convince key segments of the American right that Democrats stole the election through deliberate fraud,” Rick Hasen, a University of California-Irvine law professor and election expert, recently wrote for CNN. “Such a scenario could lead to chaos and disagreement about the results of the election even if election officials do everything by the book and there is no significant fraud or mismanagement of the election.”
There’s even the possibility, while something of a long-shot, that 2020 election litigation makes its way to the Supreme Court, a la Bush v. Gore, giving the newly confirmed Justice Amy Coney Barrett a starring role in deciding the fate of the president who put her on the bench only weeks before. The surest way to avoid this fate, the experts agree, is a historic turnout and an outcome so unequivocal that no legal challenge could overturn it.