This article was originally published in The Guardian.
Millions of Americans have already cast their vote in America’s presidential election, underscoring unprecedented enthusiasm in the 2020 race that could lead to record-shattering turnout.
Election day is still weeks away, but a staggering 17.1 million voters have already cast their ballots either by mail or in person, according to data collected by Michael McDonald, a professor at the University of Florida who closely tracks voter turnout. Overall, the US has already surpassed 12% of its total vote from the 2016 presidential election. Democrats appear to be disproportionately responsible for driving the early vote turnout and observers say this could be the first election in US history where a majority of voters cast their ballots before election day.
Several states, including battlegrounds like Wisconsin, Michigan and Florida have already surpassed 20% of their total 2016 vote, a sign of strong enthusiasm. (The Guardian and ProPublica are tracking these vote-by-mail ballots here.)
“That’s nuts,” McDonald said in an interview. “This is orders of magnitude larger number[s] of people voting.”
The United States may be heading for record turnout in a presidential election, experts say. McDonald estimates that about 150 million people will vote this year of the approximately 239.2 million eligible voters, the highest turnout in a presidential election since 1908. And Tom Bonier, the CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm that closely tracks voter data, said he thought as many as 160 million voters could cast a ballot. 137.5 million Americans voted in the 2016 general election.
The early enthusiasm comes as voters in Virginia, Ohio, Georgia and Texas have all seen huge lines on the first day of in-person early voting – some counties in those states said they saw record turnout on the first day. For months, election administrators have been trying to figure out how to predict and accommodate an influx of in-person voters as they face a shortage of personnel and locations.
Democrats have encouraged their supporters to cast their votes as early as possible either in person or by mail. The push to vote early, both by mail and in person, has also come amid fears about the capacity of the United States Postal Service (USPS) to deliver mail-in ballots on time.
“We’ve got to vote early, in person if we can. We’ve got to request our mail-in ballots right now, tonight, and send them back immediately and follow up to make sure they’re received,” Michelle Obama said at the Democratic national convention in August.
So far, Democrats are heeding that advice and crushing Republicans when it comes to both requesting and returning mail-in ballots. In North Carolina, a key battleground state, Democratic voters have returned 269,844 ballots, 42.9% of the more than 628,000 they requested. Republicans have returned just 96,051 out of a little over 258,413 requests (roughly 37%).
In Pennsylvania, another key state, Democrats have returned more than 22% of the 1.7m ballots they requested, a significant advantage over Republicans, who have returned just over 12% of their 652,516 requested ballots. In Dane county, a liberal stronghold in Wisconsin, more than 62% of the more than 200,000 voters who requested ballots have already returned them, the highest return rate in the state.
“It’s like a double advantage for Democrats – not only are there advantages for Democrats for the number of ballot requests, but they’re also adding on to that advantage by having their voters return their ballots at a higher rate than Republicans,” McDonald said.
The surge has been enough to cause Republicans to concede privately at the very least that the advantage right now is with Democrats, both in terms of the presidential race and winning a majority of seats in the Senate.
“If I’m in Vegas I’d bet on Biden,” said one Republican strategist who specializes in data analytics and asked to remain anonymous. That sentiment is increasingly shared by Republican operatives and top staffers in the Senate who are beginning to plot out life in the minority.
But the enthusiasm spans both Democratic and Republican voters. “Look, I’d rather be down 710,000 [registered voters] than 1.4 million. But I don’t want to oversell it. We still have a lot of work to do,” said Republican strategist Mark Harris.
The data is so drastically different from previous years that McDonald said it was difficult to predict what it portends for the eventual election outcome. In a typical election, there is usually a spike in voting around the start of early voting, which then falls off until near election day, when it climbs again.
“There could be two plausible explanations. One is that Democrats are more enthused and want to vote as soon as they can. The other is that Republicans, even those who have requested mail ballots, are deciding that they want to vote in person and they may wait and then when in-person early voting or election day comes around, go vote then,” he said.
The overall number of early voters is eye-popping, but so are the statistics among who is actually choosing to vote early. At least 670,854 first-time voters have cast their ballots, more than twice the number of first-time voters who cast ballots at the same point in 2016, according to TargetSmart data. More than 2.4 million infrequent voters have already cast ballots, compared with just 658,163 during the same point in 2016. Democrats lead Republicans in both groups, according to TargetSmart modeling data.
“This isn’t just likely voters casting a mail ballot because they can. It’s people who are eager to vote,” Bonier said.
While Republicans have long bragged about a more energetic base of support for Trump, Joe Biden’s campaign is also betting on strong antagonism from voters toward the president.
“One of the things the Trump campaign has been wrong about in their analysis is that the intensity of their voters for Trump is more intense than for Biden supporters,” said a longtime Republican pollster. “But they’re looking at the wrong measurement. The Biden voters aren’t intense because of Biden. They’re intense because they’re going to vote against Trump.”
Some Republicans, the Washington Post reported last month, are also worried Trump’s repeated broadsides against mail-in voting may wind up hurting their own supporters.
“There’s a reason why Republicans are reportedly concerned about these numbers in the early vote. Republicans in places like Florida, North Carolina and Arizona have relied on advantages in turnout among mail voters in the past,” Bonier said. “It’s a tactical advantage to be able to bank these votes early and not have to spend resources on them over the closing weeks.”
Regardless, McDonald said it was too early to say whether or not the strong Democratic early voting would lead to a Biden win.
“The irony here is Democrats are actually doing Republicans a favor. They’re voting by mail and they’re clearing out the space for Republicans to vote on election day,” McDonald said. “It should benefit Republicans who are trying to vote on election day that the Democrats have done them this favor of not standing in line in front of them.”
There is also another complication for Democrats. Voters who cast their ballots by mail are much more likely to have their ballot rejected for a technicality than those who vote in person. And research has shown that first-time voters, young people and minority voters are all much more likely to have their ballots rejected.
While Bonier cautioned against trying to use the early voting numbers to predict the results of the election, he said that Democrats had “checked every box”.
“On election day I think we’ll have a sense of how deep of a hole Republicans are in,” Bonier said. “Their game is all turnout, and all their turnout is happening on election day. There’s not a lot of margin for error for them at this point.”