Pollsters and analysts are still debating whether the early vote is cannibalizing Election Day turnout or whether we are looking at a historic increase in voter participation, but we do know that early voting both by mail and in person is skewing heavily Democratic. NBC News reports: “Nearly half of those votes — almost 14.2 million ballots — have come from Democrat-affiliated voters. Republican-affiliated voters have returned almost 10.1 million ballots. And while not every Democrat will vote for former Vice President Joe Biden and not every Republican will vote for President Donald Trump, Democrats currently have a 14-point edge in returned ballots.” Even if those votes take away from Democrats’ turnout on Nov. 3, this is still a huge worry for Republicans.
The large number of early mail-in votes suggests that the warnings from Democrats about returning ballots early to avoid postal delays have resonated. By contrast, the rate of return from Republicans is lagging. The New York Times reports: “Ballot return data from heavily Democratic cities like Pittsburgh; Chapel Hill, N.C.; and Tampa, Fla., and the long lines of cars waiting at a Houston arena to drop off ballots, are signs that many voters have followed through on their intentions to cast ballots well ahead of Nov. 3. There is still time for Republicans to catch up in many places, and they are expected to vote in strong numbers in person on Election Day. . . . But in states that have begun accepting absentee ballots, Democrats have built what appears to be a sizable advantage, after years when Republicans were usually more likely to vote by mail.”
The advantage of “banking” votes early cannot be underestimated. The potential burden of long lines (often the result of Republicans’ refusal to provide an adequate number of polling places) could fall disproportionately on Republican voters, some of whom may give up rather than wait in line for hours. In addition, Republican poll “observers” will have fewer ballots from Democrats on Election Day to challenge (e.g., on signature discrepancies). In addition, elderly voters who thought they would vote on Nov. 3 may eventually decide not to show up given the surge of the coronavirus in states such as Wisconsin. And lastly, any efforts to intimidate and harass voters on Nov. 3 will find fewer Democratic voters. (Federal law and state law in all 50 states prohibit voter intimidation, but such behavior can be often difficult to identify and prevent.)
Early voting may in some places help Democrats stake an early lead, thereby diminishing Republicans’ ability to claim victory prematurely. CNN reports: “Key states like Florida, North Carolina and Georgia can start processing absentee votes before when they are received or a certain number of days before November 3. That means they can be counted more quickly on Election Day.” Other states, such as Pennsylvania and Michigan, cannot start processing votes (e.g., verifying signatures) until Election Day, which may mean a long delay in counting the early, disproportionately Democratic vote. The good news is that states such as Wisconsin are ramping up the number of poll workers to speed up processing of early votes.
Democratic enthusiasm, coupled with a successful get-out-the-vote-early campaign, may well produce a record-high turnout. Even if early votes are not additive to totals on Nov. 3, getting Democrats to cast votes now may be the most successful anti-suppression voting effort the party has ever waged.
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