The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Explosive early voting is already transforming our politics

People fill out paperwork to vote early in Nebraska. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

It’s not clear to me that folks are sufficiently appreciating the magnitude and the great importance of the surge in early voting that we’re now seeing. It may end up transforming our politics to a far greater extent than any of us can yet imagine.

The numbers are simply staggering. According to The Post’s latest tally, more than 70 million people have voted early. Incredibly, that’s more than 50 percent of the total number of people who voted in the 2016 election.

The obvious causes of this are President Trump — who activates voters on both sides like nothing else — and the coronavirus. Much of it is driven by the fact that voting-by-mail is easier than ever in numerous states, including more states that mail absentee-ballot applications directly to eligible voters.

Many people who hoped to avoid voting in person during the pandemic are using that option. With campaigns and parties aggressively prodding them to send in ballots early, that’s happening everywhere.

The result is that nearly 50 million of those early votes constitute returned mail ballots, according to the U.S. Elections Project. But in-person early voting is also surging, with over 20 million Americans already doing it. The total number of early votes in the battleground states has already topped 33 million.

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

This is already having a transformative impact on our politics. For one thing, it’s bringing us closer to realizing the holy grail of voting advocates and campaigns alike: bringing new voters and people who vote sporadically into the electorate.

Indeed, according to a Post compilation of data from 30 states, 1 in 5 of the voters who have voted early so far didn’t vote in their state in the previous election.

“It’s an entirely different electorate,” Tom Bonier, the CEO of the data firm TargetSmart, told me.

Why is the surge in early voting leading to such high levels of engagement from low-propensity voters? Bonier says the act of making voting more accessible — most notably this cycle by relaxing barriers to voting by mail — results in more people voting, because those sporadic voters are the ones who previously faced more hurdles to participation rooted in socioeconomic factors.

“Groups that tend to have more hurdles to participating will see the biggest increases,” Bonier told me. “It’s a radical reshuffling of how people are able to vote. That’s the biggest change.”

There also may be a self-reinforcing series of factors at play here. Democratic operatives say the higher numbers of early voters is freeing up resources that can be more focused on targeting a smaller remaining pool of sporadic voters.

“We’ve never had an election like this,” Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg told me. “It’s changing the way we do voter contact. When more people vote early, it allows campaigns to target more low-propensity voters that might not otherwise have been targeted."

“This will almost certainly mean that turnout in this election will be at the upper end of what’s possible,” Rosenberg continued.

One key way that operatives try to boost turnout is by getting neighborhood organizers to subject would-be voters to peer pressure. In this case, all the early voting might in some cases be producing its own self-reinforcing peer pressure, as CNN’s Dana Bash and Bridget Nolan illustrated in a recent report on young people voting early.

“We know that peer pressure is one of the most powerful motivators for getting folks to vote,” Rosenberg told me. “It’s as if the entire country is under pressure now from other Americans to vote, and a voting virtuous cycle is kicking in."

Meanwhile, all the early voting is creating a wealth of new information about who is voting in this particular election that campaigns are using to inform strategic decisions in the closing days.

Joe Biden’s decision to campaign in Georgia, for instance, is almost certainly due in part to the campaign’s interpretation of the meaning of the surge in African American early voting in the state.

“If you’re the Biden campaign, you look at this and say, ‘That’s a sign that our folks are very engaged. We believe this to be in play,'" Bonier told me.

It’s hard to know what sort of long-term impact this will all have. But it’s already proving transformative on many levels, and hopefully it will continue doing so for many cycles to come.

Texas and Georgia shattered records this week on their first days of early voting. The Washington Post's Amy Gardner explains what’s behind the long lines. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Astrid Riecken/The Washington Post)

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Why is Trump trailing? New polling shows it’s his slide among Whites.

Greg Sargent: As Biden and Trump battle for White voters, district-level polls are revealing

George F. Will: The coming decade of Democratic dominance

Jennifer Rubin: How early voting deters GOP voter suppression

Greg Sargent: Surprise! Huge early vote bodes well for avoiding electoral disaster.