The United States is in the midst of an early voting revolution. At least 5.6 million people have already voted in the 2020 presidential election, exponentially more than had voted at this point in 2016. Americans are flocking to early voting sites and flooding election offices with mail-in ballots at totally unprecedented rates. As more states begin mailing out ballots and launching in-person early voting, the number of votes will skyrocket. By the time Election Day rolls around, a huge portion of the country will have already cast a ballot.
Part of this surge in early voting can be attributed to the pandemic, which prompted some states to expand vote by mail and impelled many people to vote from home. But that doesn’t explain the record turnout—we’re on track to reach historic levels of participation—or the massive partisan gap in returned ballots. To understand this dynamic and its implications for the 2020 race, I called Michael McDonald, a professor at the University of Florida who runs the U.S. Elections Project, on Wednesday. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.
Mark Joseph Stern: How does early voting in 2020 compare to early voting in 2016 so far?
Michael McDonald: 5.6 million people have voted, and we’re heading toward a million votes a day. These are unprecedented numbers. In states like North Carolina, which really didn’t change the way in which they run elections, we’re seeing mail ballots returned at 10 times the rate they were in 2016. It’s clear that there’s a change in behavior from the voters. It’s not just that there are more opportunities for early voting, but that voters are changing the way they vote as well. That’s good news. We were very concerned that people would wait till the very end of the early voting period and election officials would get a deluge of mail ballots then. People might have missed deadlines for returning those ballots.
Why do you think so many Americans are voting early?
It’s possible that people have simply changed when they would’ve voted. Some people who would’ve voted later may simply be voting now. But it’s also possible that what we’re seeing is record turnout. I’d already been predicting that 150 million people would vote in the election, which would put us at the highest raw number in history, and highest turnout since 1908. And nothing I’ve seen in the data leads me to conclude otherwise. Typically, early voting numbers ramp up as you get closer to Election Day. These early voting numbers will tick up, especially once more states offer in-person early voting. We’re already seeing long lines of people to vote early in states that are offering that. Once we get into more states’ in-person early voting periods, we’re going to see these early voting numbers blossom yet again, and they’re already in full bloom. I think it’s going to be spectacular.
Is there a partisan divide in the early voting returns so far?
[Laughs] Oh, yeah, of course. We knew in advance of the election that, given the requested mail ballots in states like North Carolina and Maine and Florida, there would be lopsided advantages for registered Democrats. That’s very unusual. Usually you see Republicans doing better with mail ballots, or at least in parity with Democrats. We typically don’t see these huge lopsided advantages. Nationally, you’re looking at an almost 2-to-1 advantage of registered Democrats over registered Republicans in mail ballot requests.
So more Democrats are requesting ballots, but are they also sending them back?
Democrats are returning their mail ballots at a higher rate than Republicans. That’s unusual too. The typical pattern is that Republicans return their ballots at a higher rate than Democrats. Now we’re seeing the opposite, and we’re seeing it in every state. Florida, North Carolina, Maine, Iowa, South Carolina, Oklahoma—places you wouldn’t expect to see this. South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Virginia have already seen about 20 percent of their total 2016 turnout. People are returning ballots, and they’re voting at unprecedented levels. In South Dakota, registered Democrats have an 11.7 percentage point return rate lead over Republicans. It’s a red state, yes, but you’re still seeing these lopsided numbers. What’s going on here? Why aren’t these Republicans returning the ballots they already requested? That seems to be a strange behavior. My only guess is that they’ve listened to Trump and even though they’ve requested a mail ballot, they decided not to cast it because they heard his rhetoric about fraud and are deciding to vote in person. So Election Day and the in-person early voting period will be important.
In other words, it’s still way too early to call the presidential race.
I don’t expect that just because Dems are beating Republicans in mail ballots means Biden automatically wins the election. Since the advent of early voting, Election Day has been very red. More Republicans tend to vote on Election Day than Democrats. And we may yet see another strange pattern emerge this year where Republicans may show up in force at early in-person voting while all the Democrats are voting by mail. That happened in Florida’s August primary. Lopsided numbers of Dems voted by mail, but more Republicans voted early in person, which is a typical strength for the Democrats. There’s an irony here: Because all these Democrats are voting by mail, they’re going to make the voting experience better and safer for Republicans because there won’t be as many Democrats standing in line. It will make the lines shorter and make things easier for Republicans.
If Republicans might make up the gap in a few weeks, does Democrats’ early voting enthusiasm really matter?
Yes. The campaigns have a list of voters, and they know when people have already voted. They can scratch names off the list once they’ve returned their ballot. I’ve got my ballot sitting right in front of me right now, and I’ve gotten calls reminding me to go vote. Once I send this ballot in, those calls will stop. The campaigns will know I’ve voted already, and they won’t waste their time on me.
If a campaign knows who has already voted, they can refocus their efforts onto people who haven’t voted yet. All those votes getting banked now allow the campaign to better target people who haven’t voted yet. That’s a benefit for Biden. The Trump campaign has to wait till the end and do a real big push on turnout for their supporters. And the Trump campaign is already cash-strapped. Early voters are handing the Biden campaign another cost-saving advantage. It needs fewer volunteers and paid staffers to call voters. It prints and mails less campaign literature, since that stops arriving as soon as you vote. This should help the Biden campaign leverage even more of the cash advantage they have over the Trump campaign.
In some swing states, election officials can’t start processing mail-in ballots until Election Day. So there’s a possibility that the first returns, the Election Day vote, will favor Trump, and he’ll falsely declare victory. Does that worry you?
Unless the polls are absolutely wrong, I expect we’re going to have a very good idea, if not a certainty, of the winner on election night. Because if Biden wins Florida—where we should have 99 percent of ballots counted on election night—that’ll be it. The irony is that because our election officials are pretty efficient at counting mail ballots, which will be lopsided for Biden, the first results reported on election night in Florida will show a huge Biden lead. You might see an early Trump lead in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, where they can’t process ballots early. But in Florida, we can. And if Biden wins Florida, that’s game over for Trump. And if Biden wins Florida by the margins the polls suggest he will, that gives us a good read on the overall national swing.
Going back to mail-in ballot mayhem, we’re already seeing lots of ballots rejected in North Carolina, which also processes them early. Voting rights advocates are ringing the alarm over signature mismatch, witness requirements, and other stuff that trips up absentee voters. Does that worry you?
Yes and no. Guilford County, North Carolina, is the hot spot, but they’re getting things under control there. The number of rejected ballots have been coming down. They’re down to about 10 percent of African American ballots being rejected. That’s not great for Guilford. But last week at about this time, they were looking at a 22 percent ballot rejection rate. That means election officials have been doing their due diligence. They’re reaching out to voters and fixing the problem.
Not every voter who’s notified of a problem will cure their ballot, though.
We’ve seen about 300 ballots cured just this week in Guilford. Ten percent is still worrisome, but each day that number keeps coming down, so clearly, whatever was causing the problem, election officials are dealing with it. I’m not on the ground, so I don’t know what’s going on here. I know there’s been a lot of press attention on it. The ACLU has been contacting voters who have problems with their ballot. They have that data and know who these voters are. So do other civil rights groups. If you’ve got a rejected ballot in Guilford, you’re probably getting phone calls from five or six organizations. And because the ballots are coming back early, there’s still time to cure them.
But in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, election officials can’t process ballots until Election Day. So absentee voters won’t have as much time to cure faulty ballots.
That’s the bad news. That’s where we’re going to see more ballots rejected and voters unable to cure them.
Do you think these problems could swing the election?
A Biden blowout seems likely right now. That’s what the polls tell us. And it may be decisive enough that thousands of mail ballots getting rejected won’t change the outcome.