Ab­sen­tee vot­ing fa­vors Democrats

San Francisco Chronicle - Late Edition (Sunday) - - NATION - By Reid J. Ep­stein, Nick Co­rasan­iti and Stephanie Saul

In Madi­son, Wis., thou­sands of peo­ple have gone to parks to de­liver their bal­lots dur­ing Satur­day vot­ing fes­ti­vals. In Mil­wau­kee, Face­book feeds are in­un­dated with self­ies of Democrats in­sert­ing bal­lots into drop boxes. And along the shores of Lake Su­pe­rior, vot­ers in Wis­con­sin’s lib­eral north­west cor­ner still trust the Postal Ser­vice to de­liver bal­lots.

Of all the mini­bat­tle­grounds within Wis­con­sin — per­haps the most piv­otal state in Novem­ber for both Pres­i­dent Trump and Joe Bi­den — the mother lode of ab­sen­tee bal­lots is com­ing in Dane County, a Demo­cratic strong­hold that in­cludes Madi­son. As of Fri­day, the num­ber of sub­mit­ted bal­lots there amounted to more than 36% of the county’s to­tal 2016 elec­tion vote, a sign of sig­nif­i­cant en­thu­si­asm; that fig­ure is 10 per­cent­age points higher than in any other county in the state.

In Wis­con­sin’s Repub­li­can heart­land, the sub­ur­ban coun­ties that ring Mil­wau­kee, the ab­sen­tee turnout is only at about the state av­er­age so far. And in the dozens of ru­ral coun­ties where Trump won huge vic­to­ries four years ago, bal­lots are be­ing re­turned at a far slower rate than in the state’s Demo­cratic ar­eas.

The yawn­ing dis­par­i­ties in vot­ing across Wis­con­sin and sev­eral other key bat­tle­grounds so far are among the clear­est signs yet this fall that the Demo­cratic em­brace of ab­sen­tee vot­ing is re­sult­ing in head starts for the party ahead of elec­tion day. For Repub­li­cans, the vot­ing pat­terns un­der­score the huge bet they are plac­ing on high turnout on Nov. 3, even as states such as Wis­con­sin face safety con­cerns at polling sites given the spikes in coro­n­avirus cases.

The Demo­cratic en­thu­si­asm to vote is not lim­ited to Wis­con­sin. Bal­lot re­turn data from heav­ily Demo­cratic cities like Pitts­burgh; Chapel Hill, N. C.; and Tampa, Fla., and the long lines of cars wait­ing at a Hous­ton arena to drop off bal­lots, are signs that many vot­ers have fol­lowed through on their in­ten­tions to cast bal­lots well ahead of Nov. 3.

There is still time for Repub­li­cans to catch up in many places, and they are ex­pected to vote in strong numbers in per­son on elec­tion day. And un­told numbers of ab­sen­tee bal­lots could be re­jected for fail­ing to ful­fill re­quire­ments, like wit­ness sig­na­tures, or could face le­gal chal­lenges. But in states that have be­gun ac­cept­ing ab­sen­tee bal­lots, Democrats have built what ap­pears to be a siz­able ad­van­tage, af­ter years when Repub­li­cans were usu­ally more likely to vote by mail.

Tom Bonier, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Tar­getS­mart, a Demo­cratic data firm, said his mod­els showed Democrats with a 10point ad­van­tage among the 275,000 first­time vot­ers na­tion­wide who had al­ready cast bal­lots and an 18point lead among 1.1 mil­lion “spo­radic vot­ers” who had al­ready voted.

At the same point in the 2016 cy­cle, Bonier said, his model showed Democrats with a 1.6point ad­van­tage among spo­radic vot­ers.

“Democrats are highly en­gaged, and they’re turn­ing out,” Bonier said. “Repub­li­cans can’t say the same.”

Across the coun­try, vot­ers in states with lit­tle history of cast­ing their bal­lots weeks be­fore elec­tion day have em­braced the prac­tice as the na­tion grap­ples with the eighth month of a pan­demic that has so far killed more than 214,000 Amer­i­cans.

As of Fri­day, more than 8.3 mil­lion bal­lots had al­ready been re­ceived by elec­tions of­fi­cials in the 30 states that have made data avail­able. In six states — in­clud­ing the bat­tle­grounds of Wis­con­sin and Min­nesota — the num­ber of bal­lots re­turned al­ready is more than 20% of the en­tire 2016 turnout.

Reid J. Ep­stein, Nick Co­rasan­iti and Stephanie Saul are New York Times writ­ers.

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