More than 98 million Americans had cast ballots by Monday evening, an astonishing figure equal to about 70 percent of the total turnout four years ago — leaving election officials, the campaigns and the public overall wondering how heavy voting traffic would be on Tuesday.
While at least three states — Texas, Hawaii and Montana — exceeded their total 2016 turnout with early and mail voting this year, other states have seen lower turnout that could foretell heavier Election Day traffic. Among battlegrounds, Pennsylvania had reached only about 40 percent of its 2016 levels by Monday, Ohio had hit 60 percent, and Michigan was also at 60 percent.
But fresh signs Monday suggested that turnout was picking up in Michigan, as voters seeking to drop off their absentee ballots in person formed long lines in Detroit and other cities.
“Today is just stunning, and it’s still going,” said Ron Lockett, who runs the Northwest Activities Center in Detroit, where 200 people had already lined up to vote Monday morning when he showed up for work.
In other states, election officials who encountered huge numbers of voters in the past several weeks said they were not sure what to expect Tuesday.
In Georgia, 3.9 million people had already voted as of Monday evening — edging close to the 4.2 million who turned out in 2016. The majority of the state’s 10 most populous counties had returned more than two-thirds of their mail ballots as of Saturday, according to the U.S. Elections Project.
On Monday, Fulton County Elections Director Richard Barron said that in some precincts in his county, home to downtown Atlanta, more than 80 percent of registered voters had cast their ballots either by mail or in person.
“This turnout has been amazing,” Barron said. Like other election administrators, Barron cautioned that Tuesday could still bring a crush of voting — and long wait times — but said that the upside was likely to be record-setting overall turnout, brought on by heavy interest in the race for the White House between President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden.
“June taught us how difficult it is to run an election in the middle of a pandemic, but I think it also helped us to be prepared for what lies ahead,” Barron said. “It has made us better.”
Advocates remained nervous about the volume of mail ballots requested but not yet returned — and about fresh reports Monday of mail service delays in several battleground states. In Homestead, Fla., south of Miami, Postal Service executives announced that 62 ballots were found in a backlog of 180,000 pieces of mail over the weekend. All the ballots except one have now been delivered.
An estimated 29.9 million requested ballots had not been returned by Monday afternoon, according to the U.S. Elections Project, and the campaigns were urging their supporters to return ballots immediately, preferably by dropping them off in person, to make sure those votes count.
In many cases, voters requested absentee ballots but then changed their minds about voting by mail, election officials said.
In Harris County, Tex., for instance, home of Houston, about half of the 90,000 ballots that haven’t been returned were surrendered by voters who chose to cast their ballots in person instead.
And in Florida, where 1.35 million mail ballots had not yet been returned, Republican consultant Rick Wilson estimated that voters planning to cast ballots in person accounted for about half of those.
In some states, however, it is more difficult for voters to change how they cast their ballots. In South Carolina, where about 35,000 mail-in ballots had not been returned by Monday afternoon, anyone who requested and received one will not be allowed to vote in person Tuesday. Those South Carolinians must instead return their mail-in ballots by 7 p.m. or cast a provisional ballot if they attest to never receiving their ballot in the mail.
Strategists from both parties said it was likely that more Republicans than Democrats got cold feet about voting by mail after months of attacks from Trump, who claimed without evidence that it would invite fraud. Polls have also indicated that a majority of Republicans planned to vote on Election Day, whereas most Democrats said they planned to vote early, either by mail or in person.
In the states that track voters by party registration, early-voting data reflected an advantage for Democrats, although in some states, notably Florida, that advantage had narrowed dramatically by the time early voting ended Sunday.
Whether Trump can close the gap remaining in other states, including battlegrounds Pennsylvania and North Carolina, by drawing out huge majorities of his supporters Tuesday, will determine the ultimate winner.
“I won’t feel confident until the numbers are actually in,” said Kelvin Veecher, 47, from the west side of Detroit, who was not comforted by the unexpected crowd he encountered while casting his ballot for Biden on Monday.
Large voting crowds will also challenge efforts to protect voters and poll workers against coronavirus infection. At one absentee-voting center in Lansing, Mich., on Monday, voters didn’t always follow posted instructions to maintain social distancing.
“We can encourage it, but we can’t force the voters” to distance, City Clerk Chris Swope said.
State officials and voting rights advocates, meanwhile, said they were prepared to fend off attempts to thwart or intimidate voters. In addition, both presidential campaigns were planning to deploy thousands of observers at polls.
“We are confident we’ll see record turnout here by the end of the election night,” said Quentin Turner, who runs the voter protection operation in Michigan for Common Cause, a nonpartisan group. “We are a little above 50 percent of our 2016 total in early votes alone. Many folks in Michigan want to vote in person; it’s an important tradition here.”
On a call with reporters Monday, a group of state attorneys general sought to reassure voters that the election will run safely and smoothly. They stressed that attempts to intimidate voters will not be tolerated and that the election will not end until all lawfully cast votes have been counted — despite rhetoric from Trump, who has argued that no ballots should be counted after Election Day.
“There’s a whole cottage industry devoted to all kinds of hypotheticals about how the election could go wrong,” said Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel (D). “Here in Michigan, we know how to administer elections, we know how to count votes, and we know how to resolve election disputes. . . . We are not about to allow anyone to steal this election.”
Voting rights advocates scored at least two legal victories Monday. In Texas, a federal judge rejected a local Republican attempt to invalidate tens of thousands of ballots cast via drive-through voting locations in Harris County — though the judge, an appointee of former president George W. Bush, also cautioned those who haven’t yet voted to avoid using drive-through centers on Election Day. The plaintiffs in the case appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in hopes of a ruling Monday evening.
And in Nevada, a state judge denied an emergency request by Trump’s campaign to change ballot-handling procedures in Clark County, a ruling that allows election workers to continue counting votes in the Democratic stronghold.
The campaign and the Nevada Republican Party had sought a number of changes that they said were necessary to protect against fraud, including greater access for poll watchers to observe ballot-processing facilities and the installation of video cameras in those facilities. They also argued that county officials should not be allowed to use a machine to verify some signatures on mail ballots and should instead have to check every signature manually. The Republican plaintiffs said they were evaluating an appeal.
As early voting continued Monday in a number of states, supporters of both Trump and former vice president Biden said they were jittery about the outcome.
“I’m nervous,” said Darius Smith, 26, as he waited to vote in Dayton, Ohio, along with his wife, Marissa Smith, both of whom said racial justice was a top issue for them this year. “We will probably not be going to sleep tomorrow night.”
Several states began processing, but not counting, mail ballots Monday, including Michigan, where the legislature allowed jurisdictions with more than 25,000 residents to begin processing absentee ballots before Election Day.
In Detroit and several other cities, clerks began opening absentee envelopes containing ballots and checking that the envelope numbers matched the ballot tracking numbers inside.
Some cities eligible to begin this pre-Election Day processing, including Warren and Canton, declined to do so because they didn’t want to initiate “pre-processing,” as they call it, for the first time during a major election.
Starting at 7 a.m. Tuesday, election workers will remove absentee ballots from their secrecy envelopes and run them through the counting machines.
Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul (D) noted that Wisconsin law does not allow clerks to begin processing absentee ballots until Tuesday, meaning counting could continue into Wednesday and beyond. “That’s not a sign that anything is going wrong with the process,” Kaul said. “It’s a sign that the process is working, our clerks are following the law and that every lawfully cast ballot is being counted.”
Jacob Bogage, Aaron C. Davis, Rosalind S. Helderman, Michael Kranish, Beth Reinhard, Neena Satija and Elise Viebeck in Washington, Jon Swaine in New York, Tom Hamburger in Detroit, Omar Sofradzija in Lansing, Mich., Kevin Williams in Dayton, Ohio, and Mark Guarino in Des Moines contributed to this report.