U.S. Election: The rise of early voting

By Sarah John, Research Director, FairVote 

Can this election us-early-votingbe over already? The rise of early voting

Like in Australia, early and postal voting is increasingly common in American elections. In Colorado, Oregon and Washington all elections are conducted entirely by mail. This election commentators predict that more than one-third of American voters will vote before Election Day (November 8th).  An estimated 27 million had voted by November 1st, that’s nearly twice as many as in 2012. Four million of Florida’s 13 million registered voters, and 2 million of North Carolina’s 7 million registered voters have already cast a ballot.

These figures raise (at least) two questions.

  • What’s driving the increase in early voting?

Firstly, early voting is convenient and states have been making early and postal voting more readily available in recent years. While presidential battlegrounds like Pennsylvania and Michigan do not allow early voting at all, the general trend since the 1990s has been to expand access to early voting. Thirty seven states now allow early voting. Presidential battlegrounds of Florida and Ohio allow no excuse early voting, while Virginia allows in-person early voting with an excuse. Maryland (a safe Democratic state) allowed no excuse early voting between the 27th of October and November 3rd (a Maryland early voting center is pictured above). Early voting can begin… well, rather early: in South Dakota, in-person early voting began on September 23rd.

Secondly, political parties and candidates utilize early voting as part of their voter mobilization strategies. Since 2008, Democrats have encouraged their supporters to vote early (but not often). This year, President Barack Obama features in an ad for the Clinton campaign in which he asks “Why wait until November 8th?” and encourages Democrats to vote “before Joe Biden does… It drives him nuts.”

Thirdly, in 2016, with two polarizing candidates whom voters either passionately support or find entirely dispiriting at the top of the ticket, many voters have either made their decision or just want to get the whole election thing over and done with.

  • What can we learn about the likely outcome of the presidential election from early voter statistics?

In many states, voters nominate which party’s primary they wish to vote in (i.e. their “party affiliation”) when they enroll. This can be used as an imperfect measure of their likely presidential vote. Using data provided by states that show the party affiliation of those who have early voted, we can get a sense of whether more Democrats or Republicans are (early) voting.

Currently, Democrats appear to have the edge. According to Slate, in Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, and North Carolina, more affiliated Democrats have voted than Republicans; meanwhile in Florida and Arizona Republicans appear to be ahead. Speculation abounds as to whether this apparent advantage to the Democrats in early voting will hold and whether it is predictive of the eventual presidential election results.

The Floridian early voting figures are especially significant, as Florida has 29 of the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win. Carrying Florida is absolutely necessary for Trump – his only path to victory must include Florida. As the Washington Post notes:

If Clinton wins the 18 states (plus D.C.) that every Democratic presidential nominee has carried between 1992 and 2012, she has 242 electoral votes. Add Florida’s 29 to that total and Clinton is at 271 and the election is over.

Of course, Trump would still need to win the tossup states of Ohio, Utah, Arizona as well as several other states that are tilting for Clinton in polling.

The rise of early voting, and the gradual replacement of “Election Day” by “Election Month”, offers all a good deal of data with which we can speculate about the eventual election result. And, fortunately, most early voters still get their “I Voted!” sticker.

Disclaimer:  this is the view of the author and Flinders University does not take responsibility for the accuracy or completeness of the material and does not accept responsibility for, or endorse the contact or condition of, any linked website. 
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