Assessing the impact of absentee voting in the 2020 election

The 2020 presidential election saw historic voter turnout. Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, joins CBSN to discuss how absentee ballots played a role in the outcome.

Video Transcript

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: You've heard us say it before. The 2020 presidential election was met with record voter turnout. Several states across the country made it easier for Americans to cast their vote amid the deadly coronavirus pandemic.

But just how influential were absentee ballots in deciding the fate of the White House and the Congress? For more insight into this, we're joined by Larry Sabato. He's the Director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. Good to see you again, Larry. So to what extent did absentee voting lead to higher turnout?

LARRY SABATO: It was a big part of higher turnout. 160 million approximately voted. And that was the highest since 1900, and even surpassed the modern high of the Kennedy-Nixon race in 1960. That was about 63% to 64%. This was 2/3 of the eligible voters in America.

Absentee ballots comprised, for the first time, all-time high, nearly half of all the votes cast, 47% of all the votes cast. And that doesn't include the early in-person voting. So it was a large majority of the votes were cast before Election Day.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: So then to what extent did absentee voting help the winner, Joe Biden? Not just the ease at which, you know, how it made it easier for some people to vote, but also the fact that President Trump repeatedly told his own supporters to go to the polls because absentee ballots, mail-in ballots could be open to fraud or sort of meddling.

LARRY SABATO: Here's the interesting thing. We've got a new study conducted by our senior columnist, Alan Abramowitz. And we published it in our Crystal Ball newsletter. What's really surprising is that absentee balloting did not affect the results. I'm sure President Trump would be surprised by that. Probably most people would be surprised by that.

But in the end, I think people chose the method that was most convenient to them, overwhelmingly so. And given the pandemic, clearly absentee balloting was the safest alternative.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: So was this only true for the presidential election? Did you look at the influences of absentee voting on the Senate races, for example?

LARRY SABATO: Again, what I find fascinating is that the method of voting really doesn't have a great deal to do with the outcome, with the possible exception of Georgia. But let's remember, those weren't regular elections. They were runoff elections held in early January, when people are not exactly used to voting. So you had a different arrangement there.

But for the other regular Senate seats that were elected in November, party determines these things, not the method of voting. We vote-- the vast majority of Americans vote for the same party from the White House to the courthouse.

And sure enough, except for Susan Collins from Maine, every single senator who was elected was elected in the state where their presidential candidate also carried the state. In 2016, it was a 100% match. In 2020, it was a nearly 100%, with Susan Collins the only exception.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: I find that absolutely fascinating. And I think it only reinforces the conclusion that the outcome of this election was legitimate, and it would have been this way even if we didn't have COVID and we weren't trying to make sure that it was safer for people to vote. But there has been a reaction to this. We are seeing in a number of states new laws being put in place, new policies being put in place to make it more challenging to vote the way people did in the 2020 election. What kind of impact do you think these state bills will have when it comes to restricting access to the vote?

LARRY SABATO: Well, let's be blunt and honest. Republicans are trying to reduce the size of the electorate, because they think that that will reduce the size of the minority vote, which goes heavily to the Democratic Party.

I think in the end, if they pass some of these laws-- and unfortunately, they seem to be doing that in some states. Georgia would be a prominent example. I think they're going to be very disappointed with the outcome, because when people want to vote, when they're motivated, they're going to find a way to vote.

If they can't vote absentee, they'll vote in person early or they'll vote in person on Election Day. We'll be, God help us, totally pass the pandemic by the next big election in 2022. And I don't think that alone will affect the outcome of the election.

They think it will, the Republicans in these state legislatures. But I think they're going to be disappointed. And of course, they shouldn't do it, because any democracy is stronger with higher participation rates. They're trying to suppress participation, because they think it benefits them in a partisan fashion. They're wrong about that. But they're also wrong in just trying to reduce participation.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: And Larry, as you probably know, for example, a lawyer who is arguing at this very moment before the Supreme Court of the United States said the quiet parts out loud, right? Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked a very simple question. She wanted to know why the Republican National Committee, why the GOP is invested in trying to change some of these policies, trying to change some of these laws.

And the lawyer for the Republicans said, because it puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to the Democrats. His name is Michael Carvin. He went on to say politics is a zero-sum game. So you're essentially hearing the Republicans saying, yeah, the reason we're trying to change this is because we might lose elections to Democrats.

LARRY SABATO: Yeah, well, the Supreme Court is very intimidating no matter who's on the court. And sometimes just being there before the Supreme Court causes attorneys to tell the truth.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Larry Sabato, thank you so much.

LARRY SABATO: Thank you very much.