WASHINGTON — As early voting in the presidential election begins Friday, with North Carolina becoming the first state in the nation to send out absentee ballots, key battleground states are seeing a significant increase in requests for mail-in ballots and registered Democrats are outpacing Republicans.
Although voters in North Carolina have until the end of October to request a mail ballot, the early numbers suggest voting behavior is changing dramatically this year due to the coronavirus pandemic and offer a snapshot into turnout with eight weeks left to go in the race.
Publicly available data from North Carolina, Florida and Pennsylvania shows that of the mail ballots requested so far, significantly more requests have been made by registered Democrats than Republicans. An estimate of party registration in Ohio by the political data firm TargetSmart shows similar results, while Democrats and Republicans are neck-and-neck in Wisconsin. The only battleground state where the GOP had more ballot requests was Michigan.
These six swing states are critical to the strategies of both President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Trump won all six in 2016 by thin margins.
In North Carolina, 643,400 voters have requested an absentee ballot as of Sept. 3. Of those requests, 337,362 were made by registered Democrats and 103,620 by registered Republicans. The remaining ballots requested went to voters not affiliated with either of the two major parties.
At the same point in the 2016 race, just 38,871 North Carolina voters had requested absentee ballots.
In Florida, roughly 47 percent of requests have come from Democrats and 32 percent from Republicans. Already more than 4 million Floridians have requested a mail-in ballot, surpassing the 3 million total requests made in 2016. Trump won Florida, which has 29 Electoral College votes, the most of any top-tier battleground state, by 112,911 votes.
In Pennsylvania, which Trump carried by less than 45,000 votes, more than 1 million Democrats are seeking a mail ballot compared with 388,000 Republicans. In other words, 70 percent of the requests made have been from Democrats and 25 percent from Republicans.
An estimate of party registration, based on a statistical model, was used to determine the breakdown in Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan, where party registration is not publicly available. The party registration is modeled by TargetSmart using multiple commercial sources.
In Ohio, 50 percent of mail-in ballots have been requested by Democrats while 38 percent have been from Republicans. In Wisconsin, it was a virtual tie at 39 percent for each party.
Michigan is the only battleground where Republicans have the edge, amounting to 43 percent of the requests compared to Democrats' 38 percent.
Democrats make up a combined 42 percent of ballots requested so far in all of the states with early voting activity, which includes less competitive places such as West Virginia and Maryland, with Republicans following close behind at 40 percent.
Although more Democrats are requesting mail-in ballots than Republicans, voters still have weeks left to make their requests and these numbers could change dramatically between now and Election Day. And the requests for absentee ballots aren't necessarily good predictors of what will happen on Election Day.
As Trump has made countless attacks against the validity of voting by mail and has downplayed the seriousness of the coronavirus, some of his supporters could also be more inclined to cast their vote in-person.
UPDATE (Sept. 6, 2020, 1:20 p.m. ET): This article has been updated with more recent figures on the number of ballots requested by Democrats and Republicans in Florida.