'Staggering numbers': Early voting is breaking records in 2020, fueled by a big mail-ballot lead for Democrats

Joey Garrison, USA TODAY
·7 min read

WASHINGTON – More than 5.6 million people have voted early in the presidential election, vastly exceeding the pace of 2016 as Democrats amass a commanding lead in returned mail ballots.

In the 2016 election, about 75,000 people had voted early one month from the election, across significantly fewer states that started early voting and reported their numbers, according to the United States Elections Project.

The national aggregation of in-person and mail-in vote totals includes more than 20 states that started voting before the election Nov. 3. Vote totals are the numbers states reported through Tuesday.

Two factors help explain the massive spike. Several states changed laws from four years ago to either offer or expand early voting, and more people are taking advantage of it, particularly voting by mail, amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"Yes, some of it's supply, but most of it's demand," said Michael McDonald, associate professor of political science at the University of Florida, who manages the United States Elections Project, which tracks early voting totals.

Voters line up in Virginia Beach, Va., for early voting Sept. 18.
Voters line up in Virginia Beach, Va., for early voting Sept. 18.

Election 2020: When early voting and mail voting for president begins in every state

The strong early voting turnout comes as Democratic nominee Joe Biden maintains a strong national polling lead over President Donald Trump.

Some people could vote earlier because they're wary about the performance of the U.S. Postal Service and want to get their ballots in the mail as soon as possible. Long lines at in-person polling places suggest voters are more excited about this election than they were in 2016.

Florida has had the most early voters (948,000), followed by Virginia (770,000) and the battleground states Michigan (637,000) and Wisconsin (577,000).

South Dakota has seen the greatest percentage of increase in voters in relation to 2016 overall turnout. Twenty-three percent of South Dakota's 2016 turnout has voted early. That's followed by Virginia (19% of its 2016 turnout), Wisconsin (19%) and Wyoming (15%).

"Those are just staggering numbers to see that many people have already voted in these states," McDonald said.

He called it "good news" for voters and election officials who feared a rush of mail ballots around Election Day. "We're no longer looking at potentially this huge crush of ballots that are going to come in right at the end of the election."

'He's scaring our own voters': Republicans run into a Donald Trump problem as they push mail voting

Good news for Democrats, but bad news for Republicans? Not so fast

It might not be good news for Trump and Republicans, who lag Democrats considerably in the number of mail ballots submitted.

Democrats account for 55%, or 1.2 million of the 2.1 million people who have voted by mail across the seven early voting states where voters register by party: Florida, North Carolina, Iowa, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and South Dakota. Republicans account for 24%, or 508,000 mail votes, in these seven states. Voters with no party affiliation made up 20%, or 417,000 votes.

Democrats requested nearly twice as many mail ballots nationwide than Republicans, probably the result of Trump's months-long assault on the legitimacy of mail ballots.

"There isn't a reason for Republicans to panic just because Democrats are 'winning' the mail vote," said Chris Wilson, a Republican pollster, who has worked for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. He said the numbers reflect a mail-voting advantage for Democrats that polls forecast long ago. "Every vote counts just once whether it is cast today or cast on Election Day."

"That being said," he added, "the concerning thing for Republicans has to be that once a Democratic vote is cast, it can't be taken back. So our window to message and convert any of these voters away from voting for Democrats is shorter than the number of days left in the campaign."

The more Democratic votes get cast early, he said, the less time Republican candidates have to reverse things "before all we're producing is regrets from people who already cast their ballots."

In Florida – where Republicans historically have a strong advantage in absentee voting – 497,000 Democrats have returned mail ballots, compared with 270,000 Republicans. In North Carolina, 206,000 Democrats have returned mail ballots, more than triple the 68,000 Republicans who have. Thirty-five percent of North Carolina Democrats who requested mail ballots have returned them, compared with 29% of Republicans.

Even in ultra-conservative South Dakota, where Trump won the 2016 election by 30 percentage points, Democrats have returned nearly as many mail ballots (26,900), as Republicans (29,699). Fifty-seven percent of Democrats who requested mail ballots have returned them, a greater share than the 45% of Republicans.

"Trump supporters have been listening to the president, his rhetoric about mail ballot fraud, and they decided not to vote by mail," McDonald said, adding that not only did Democrats request more mail ballots than Republicans, they are also returning them at higher rates. "Both of these things are highly unusual. Usually more Republicans vote by mail and they return their ballots at a higher rate when it is also said and done. To see things turned on their head is very unusual."

More: Some Democrats warn Trump may use 'red mirage' to prematurely declare victory while absentee ballots are being counted

Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster working for the Republican senatorial and congressional committees said, "It's reason of concern for both parties, but for different reasons."

Ayres said Republicans will be fine if their voters show up on Election Day or to vote early in person. "It's a concern if the pandemic continues to rage and if seniors who had voted for Republican candidates in the past get scared to go to the polls at a time when it's too late to vote for mail."

He said, "It's a concern for Democrats because mail ballots are far more likely to be disqualified for various reasons than are in-person ballots."

Samantha Zager, a spokeswoman for the Trump campaign, said that despite Democrats leading in mail voting, it isn't by the ratio Biden needs. "The math simply isn’t adding up the way Democrats expected," she said. "Across multiple states, Democrats are failing to outpace Republican ballot requests and returns by the ratio Democrats need to win, which is why we’ve seen them shift to a push for in-person voting.”

Mandi Merritt, national press secretary for the Republican National Committee, also expressed confidence: “Our voters are highly motivated by their enthusiasm for President Trump and are going to vote – many just prefer to vote in person either by Early Voting or on Election Day."

Polling has shown that Trump voters are nearly twice as likely to vote on Election Day than Democrats. Stressing "this election's not over," McDonald said it's possible that Republicans make up the disadvantage in person on Election Day.

"The other scenario is that Democrats are just more enthused to vote than Republicans, and it's showing up in these numbers," he said. "There are two plausible stories here."

He said it's unclear whether the spike in early voting will continue up to the election – or whether the same people who voted early in 2016 are just voting even earlier.

McDonald was among election experts who predicted a historically high turnout in the presidential race even before votes were cast. He estimated last year that 150 million people would vote in the 2020 election, 12 million more than the 138 million in 2016. It would make the election the highest turnout ever for a presidential election by raw votes and the highest rate among eligible voters since 1908.

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Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Election 2020: Fueled by Democrats, early voting is way up