Democratic enthusiasm sees highest number of voters in US history casting ballots before Election Day

Of 3.5 million voters in six states voting now, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by roughly 2 to 1

Amy Gardner,Elise Viebeck
Thursday 15 October 2020 14:50 BST
Mary Trump predicts what will happen if Trump loses the election

With less than three weeks to go before 3 November, more than 14 million Americans have voted in the US election, reflecting an extraordinary level of participation despite barriers erected by the coronavirus pandemic — and setting a trajectory that could result in the majority of voters casting ballots before Election Day for the first time in US history.

In Georgia this week, voters waited as long as 11 hours to cast their ballots on the first day of early voting. In North Carolina, nearly 1 in 5 of roughly 500,000 who have returned mail ballots did not vote in the last presidential election. In Michigan, more than 1 million people — roughly one-fourth of the total turnout in 2016 — have voted.

The picture is so stark that election officials across the country are reporting record early turnout, much of it in person, meaning that more results could be available on election night than previously thought.

Much of the early voting appears to be driven by heightened enthusiasm among Democrats. Of the roughly 3.5 million voters who have cast ballots in six states that provide partisan breakdowns, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by roughly 2 to 1, according to a Washington Post analysis of data in Florida, Kentucky, Iowa, Maine, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

Those who have voted include disproportionately high numbers of black voters and women, according to state data — groups that favour Joe Biden over Donald Trump in recent polls.

Dozens of voters who have shown up on their states' first day of early voting over the past several weeks have described a desire to cast their ballots at the first possible moment as a statement against the president.

“Last night felt like Christmas Eve,” said Tony Lewis, who showed up at the Kentucky Exposition Centre in Louisville on Tuesday as polls opened at 8.30am for the first day of in-person voting. “I just wanted to get out and be one of the first ones to cast my vote to hopefully end the insanity we are living in under the current administration.”

Republicans say the heavy turnout shows that Democratic votes are coming in earlier but not necessarily in higher numbers in the end. The Trump campaign and other Republicans say that Mr Biden might win the early vote, but that the president will catch up on Election Day among supporters who do not trust mail balloting.

“For months, Democrats have pinned all their hopes on mail ballots, irresponsibly scared voters away from the polls and cannibalised their Election Day voters in favour of vote by mail,” said Trump campaign spokeswoman Thea McDonald. “Republicans will show up in person on Election Day and reelect president Trump.”

While half of likely voters said they planned to vote early, a sharp partisan divide emerges over when people say they will cast their ballots, according to a Post-ABC poll conducted between 6-9 October.

Sixty-four per cent of likely voters supporting Mr Biden said they planned to vote early. Among likely voters supporting Mr Trump, 61 per cent planned to vote on Election Day.

But some Republicans are also turning out early. In Ohio, where early voting began last week, strong support for Mr Trump was evident through the state's Appalachian region.

Kimberly Roache, left, Geneva Roache and Martin Roache stand in line to cast ballots at the Richland County Voter Registration and Elections Office in Columbia, South Carolina, on the first day of in-person absentee voting on Monday
Kimberly Roache, left, Geneva Roache and Martin Roache stand in line to cast ballots at the Richland County Voter Registration and Elections Office in Columbia, South Carolina, on the first day of in-person absentee voting on Monday (Sean Rayford for The Washington Post)

“He is a president that is for the people, and he is not a politician, which is what we need,” said retiree Jerry Morkassel of Pike County, Ohio. “You sure as hell know where he stands.”

Election administrators have been preparing for months for a surge in mail voting among Americans trying to avoid coronavirus infection at the polls. And operatives in both major political parties expected the early vote to favour Mr Biden, in part because Mr Trump's repeated attacks on the integrity of mail voting have resonated more deeply with his own supporters, who are eschewing mail ballots to an extent that has alarmed GOP operatives.

Even so, the numbers trickling in as early voting begins in state after state offer a more dramatic picture than what many expected.

The number of people who have voted this year is equivalent to about 10 per cent of the 2016 electorate, according to Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida who tracks early and mail-in voting on his website, the United States Elections Project. More than 20 states are set to offer early voting in the coming weeks, including North Carolina beginning on Thursday.

Some voters who had planned to vote by mail are showing up in person to avoid delays with the US Postal Service. Many others are so determined to vote — and be seen doing it at the first available chance — that they are enduring hours-long waits despite the other voting options.

“Four years of Donald Trump is enough for me,” said Victor Tellesco, from the Phoenix suburbs, who voted for the first time in his life on Arizona's first day of early voting last week. Mr Tellesco, a registered Democrat, had requested and received a mail ballot, but he decided not to wait.

“Every time I see him on TV, my blood pressure goes up,” he said. “It just made me feel like I needed to vote this year. I don't know why I've never voted before. But this year, it feels like I needed to vote.”

While polls show that Democrats are more likely to vote by mail this year, there are signs that many are abandoning those plans and showing up in person instead. That trend was apparent this week in Fulton County, Georgia, where it helped drive long lines at early voting centres, officials said.

“We're getting a lot of reports of people cancelling their ballots by mail,” said Rick Barron, the elections chief in Fulton County, home of downtown Atlanta.

Mr McDonald, the political scientist, said the likely Democratic lean of the early vote is undeniable, but it is early in the election.

Still, the early numbers are proving to be larger than even Democrats predicted. Three out of four voters in Pennsylvania who have returned their ballots, for instance, are registered Democrats. In increasingly Democratic Virginia, where early voting began in September with hours-long lines in Washington suburbs, nearly 1.7 million voters had cast ballots by Wednesday, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project — more than triple the number who voted early or by mail overall in 2016. In Kentucky, nearly 70 per cent of mail ballots cast have come from registered Democrats.

Auditors office employee Roland Caldwell picks up a box of absentee ballots at the Scott County, Iowa, auditor's office in Davenport on Monday
Auditors office employee Roland Caldwell picks up a box of absentee ballots at the Scott County, Iowa, auditor's office in Davenport on Monday (Daniel Acker for The Washington Post)

In Georgia, so many people were determined to vote in person at the first chance of early voting Monday that they withstood lines that lasted throughout the day. A record 242,000 people voted in the first two days.

“I really wanted to make sure that my voice was heard and that my vote was counted,” said Everlean Rutherford, a contracting officer for the federal government who stood in line for 10 hours on Monday at the Cobb County election headquarters in Marietta. “I want to see a change in this country. I have three black sons, young sons. We need to make sure that the world that we leave for our children is a better world.”

Like Mr Rutherford, nearly 40 per cent of those who voted on Monday in Georgia were black, and 56 per cent were women, according to state election data. Two years ago, when Democrat Stacey Abrams, who is black, narrowly lost the race for Georgia governor, 34 per cent of the electorate was black, according to US census data. In that election, the share of women who voted was 56 per cent, the same as the proportion of early voters now.

“Are you seeing the same thing I'm seeing?” asked one Republican strategist in Georgia, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly, when shown the numbers. “This state is blue.”

Next came Texas, where early in-person voting began on Tuesday. In Harris County, home of the state's largest city, Houston, and a sizeable black population, more than 128,000 voters cast ballots in person, setting a county turnout record. The county, which voted against Mr Trump in 2016 by more than 12 points, matched roughly 10 per cent of its entire turnout four years ago on its first day of early voting.

In Travis County, home to largely Democratic Austin, county clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said she expects about 650,000 of the county's eligible 850,000 voters to cast ballots before Election Day.

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, the moon was still in the sky on Wednesday morning as voters began to line up around the parking lot of the Hamilton County Election Commission for the state's first day of early voting.

By the time doors opened at 8am, cars jammed the muddy grass allotments around the parking lot, and police had been dispatched to help coordinate traffic.

Saundra Adams ate the BLT sandwich she had packed for breakfast and watched the sun rise as the line grew longer behind her.

“I've planned for weeks, and I plan to wait however long it takes,” said Ms Adams, who cast her vote for Mr Biden.

Officials expect early in-person voting to begin on Thursday in North Carolina with the same kind of enthusiasm seen in Texas and Georgia this week. They have logged the same kind of enthusiasm among absentee voters. For instance, 1 in 5 who have already voted by mail did not vote in 2016 — a key indicator of enthusiasm, several Democratic strategists said. More than 1 in 4 newly registered voters have already cast their ballots.

Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist for two statewide candidates in North Carolina this year — governor Roy Cooper and Senate contender Cal Cunningham — acknowledged that about 80 per cent of those who had voted as of this week are people who traditionally vote early in person or on Election Day.

“We are cannibalising, yes,” he said. “But when you have one-fifth that are new to the process, that tells you that people are motivated to vote like they haven't been in a very long time. And that is a very good thing for Democrats.”

Voters wait in line to vote at C T Martin Natatorium and Recreation Centre in Atlanta
Voters wait in line to vote at C T Martin Natatorium and Recreation Centre in Atlanta (Kevin D Liles for The Washington Post)

On the other hand, Democrats say there is risk in the Trump strategy of depending on Election Day turnout for a victory, when such unforeseen forces as the weather or a surge in coronavirus infections — not to mention the president's standing among voters — could thwart enthusiasm on 3 November.

“There's a real advantage to locking up the votes and knowing that you have them,” said Becca Siegel, the Biden campaign's chief analytics officer, who noted that the more voters cast ballots ahead of 3 November, the more the campaign can focus its attention on those still making up their minds.

One point of uncertainty for Democrats is the relatively low turnout among young voters so far. In Georgia, less than 9 per cent of those who turned out on Monday were between the ages of 18 and 29, according to data from the office of Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican.

While both campaigns agree that young voters lean heavily Democratic, potentially enhancing Mr Biden's advantage, there is also peril in these voters waiting to vote. Studies have shown that they are more likely to have their mail ballots rejected than other age groups.

Meanwhile, the heavy in-person turnout suggests that there could be more results available in key states on election night than had been anticipated.

Election experts and administrators have spent months trying to lower expectations about what will be known the night of 3 November because of the wide embrace of mail ballots, which take longer to process and tabulate. And Americans appear to have absorbed that message, with half of registered voters confident that Americans will know the result of the presidential election within a “day or two” of 3 November, including nearly equal shares of Biden and Trump supporters, according to a Pew Research Centre survey released on Wednesday.

Much depends on whether and where the race is close, and what the time frame is in those states for counting and posting results. If the presidential race boils down to Pennsylvania, for instance, there is little chance a result will be available on 3 November, since tabulation of mail ballots may not begin until that morning, and ballots may arrive as late as 6 November. Election officers in Philadelphia were still counting mail ballots two weeks after the state's June primary.

Yet some potentially pivotal results are expected shortly after polls close, according to a Washington Post analysis of early vote totals and state rules governing mail balloting. Thanks to surges in early and absentee voting, looser rules for processing and counting mail ballots, and active preparation by election officials, voters in critical states such as Florida and North Carolina can expect to see advanced results on election night, if everything goes to plan.

In North Carolina, state officials plan to release preliminary returns from early in-person and mail voting shortly after polls close on 3 November at 7.30pm Eastern time. State officials in Florida expect to release similar returns at 8pm and in Arizona two hours after that.

Combined, those three states will deliver 55 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.

The Washington Post

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