Early vot­ers out in droves

An­a­lysts say record 150 mil­lion bal­lots could be counted

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Ni­cholas Ric­cardi and An­ge­liki Kas­ta­nis

Nearly 21 mil­lion Amer­i­cans have al­ready cast bal­lots in the 2020 elec­tion, a record-shat­ter­ing avalanche of early votes driven both by Demo­cratic en­thu­si­asm and a pan­demic that has trans­formed the way the na­tion votes.

The 20.8 mil­lion bal­lots sub­mit­ted as of Fri­day af­ter­noon rep­re­sents 15% of all the votes cast in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, even as eight states are not yet re­port­ing their to­tals and vot­ers still have more than two weeks to cast bal­lots. Amer­i­cans’ rush to vote is lead­ing elec­tion ex­perts to pre­dict that a record 150 mil­lion votes may be cast and turnout rates could be higher than in any pres­i­den­tial elec­tion since 1908.

So far the turnout has been lop­sided, with Democrats out­vot­ing Repub­li­cans by a 2-1 ra­tio in the 42 states in­cluded in The As­so­ci­ated Press count. Repub­li­cans have been brac­ing them­selves for this early Demo­cratic ad­van­tage for months, as they’ve watched Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump rail against mail-in bal­lots and raise un­founded wor­ries about fraud. Polling, and now early vot­ing, sug­gest the rhetoric has turned his party’s rank and file away from a method of vot­ing that, tra­di­tion­ally, they dom­i­nated in the weeks be­fore Elec­tion Day.

That gives Democrats a tac­ti­cal ad­van­tage in the fi­nal stretch of the cam­paign. In many crit­i­cal bat­tle­ground states, Democrats have “banked” a chunk of their vot­ers and can turn their time and money to­ward harder-to-find in­fre­quent vot­ers.

But it does not nec­es­sar­ily mean Democrats will lead in votes by the time bal­lots are counted. Both par­ties

an­tic­i­pate a swell of Repub­li­can votes on Elec­tion Day that could dra­mat­i­cally shift the dy­namic.

“The Repub­li­can num­bers are go­ing to pick up,” said John Cou­vil­lon, a GOP poll­ster who is tracking early vot­ing. “The ques­tion is at what ve­loc­ity, and when?”

Cou­vil­lon said Democrats can­not rest on their vot­ing lead, but Repub­li­cans are them­selves mak­ing a big gam­ble. A num­ber of fac­tors, from ris­ing virus in­fec­tions to the weather, can im­pact in-per­son turnout on Elec­tion Day. “If you’re putting all your faith into one day of vot­ing, that’s re­ally high risk,” Cou­vil­lon said.

That’s why, de­spite Trump’s rhetoric, his cam­paign and party are en­cour­ag­ing their own vot­ers to cast bal­lots by mail or early and in-per­son. The cam­paign, which has been send­ing vol­un­teers and staffers into the field for months de­spite the pan­demic, touts a swell in voter regis­tra­tion in key swing states like Florida and Penn­syl­va­nia — a sharp re­ver­sal from the usual pat­tern as a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion looms.

But it’s had lim­ited suc­cess in sell­ing ab­sen­tee vot­ing. In key swing states, Repub­li­cans re­main far less in­ter­ested in

vot­ing by mail.

In Penn­syl­va­nia, more than three­quar­ters of the more than 437,000 bal­lots sent through the mail so far have been from Democrats. In Florida, half of all bal­lots sent through the mail so far have been from Democrats and less than a third of them from Repub­li­cans. Even in Colorado, a state where ev­ery voter is mailed a bal­lot and Repub­li­cans usu­ally dom­i­nate the first week of vot­ing, only 19% of bal­lots re­turned have been from Repub­li­cans.

“This is all en­cour­ag­ing, but three weeks is a life­time,” Demo­cratic data strate­gist Tom Bonier said of the early vote num­bers. “We may be mid­way through the first quar­ter and Democrats have put a cou­ple of points on the board.”

The mas­sive amount of vot­ing has oc­curred with­out any of the vi­o­lent skir­mishes at polling places that some ac­tivists and law en­force­ment of­fi­cials feared. It has fea­tured high-pro­file er­rors — 100,000 faulty mail bal­lots sent out in New York, 50,000 in Colum­bus, Ohio, and a ven­dor sup­ply­ing that state and Penn­syl­va­nia blam­ing de­lays in send­ing bal­lots on over­whelm­ing de­mand. But there’s lit­tle ev­i­dence of the mass dis­rup­tion that some feared as elec­tion of­fices had to abruptly shift to deal with the in­flux of early vot­ing.

But there have been ex­tra­or­di­nary lines and hours­long wait times in Ge­or­gia,

Texas and North Carolina as they’ve opened in-per­son early vot­ing. The de­lays were largely a re­sult of in­suf­fi­cient re­sources to han­dle the surge, which some ad­vo­cates con­tend is a form of voter sup­pres­sion.

Repub­li­cans ar­gue that these signs of en­thu­si­asm are mean­ing­less — Demo­cratic early vot­ers are peo­ple who would have voted any­way, they say. But an AP anal­y­sis of the early vote shows 8% of early vot­ers had never cast a bal­lot be­fore, and 13.8% had voted in half or fewer of pre­vi­ous elec­tions for which they were el­i­gi­ble.

The data also show vot­ers em­brac­ing mail vot­ing, which health of­fi­cials say is the safest way to avoid coron­avirus in­fec­tion while vot­ing. Of the early vot­ers, 82% cast bal­lots through the mail and 18% in per­son.

Mail bal­lots so far have skewed to­ward older vot­ers, with half com­ing from vot­ers over age 64.

Tra­di­tion­ally, younger and mi­nor­ity vot­ers send their mail bal­lots in closer to Elec­tion Day or vote in per­son.

The mail bal­lots al­ready re­turned in sev­eral states dwarf the en­tire to­tal in prior elec­tions. In Wis­con­sin, more than five times as many mail bal­lots have been cast com­pared with the en­tire num­ber in 2016. North Carolina has seen nearly triple the num­ber so far.

MAX BECHERER/THE AD­VO­CATE

Early vot­ers wait in line Fri­day at a com­mu­nity cen­ter in New Or­leans. Ex­perts pre­dict record voter turnout rates since 1908.

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