Early voting is underway in many states and the available data is already revealing some dramatic trends: voters in some states are casting ballots by mail at three times the rate of 2016, and Democrats are outvoting Republicans by more than a two-to-one margin.
“Its almost too much good news, if that’s possible,” said Kevin Cate, a Florida media consultant who worked on President Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008. “This election cycle in general is unprecedented, but what’s happening in mail voting is almost mindboggling.” he added.
Nowhere is the data more stunning than in the must-win state of Florida where Democrats have a 470,000-vote margin through Monday, according to the U.S. Elections Project at the University of Florida, which monitors early voting nationwide.
That is all the more impressive considering that absentee, or mail-in voting is an area where Republicans have normally trounced Democrats.
Trump's campaign against mail-in voting
However, experts caution that the data is not altogether surprising due to President Donald Trump's month’s long campaign of disparaging of voting by mail, which he has called fraudulent even though he votes that way himself. This has inevitably led to fewer Republicans choosing to use that option.
At the same time, Democrats have done the opposite, stressing the health safety of voting by mail, especially for seniors, to limit the risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
Nor is early voting any indication of how the final result might go.
“In the past when political scientists have studied voting by mail, they find it does not systematically advantage either party, it is just in this election Trump has attacked mail balloting so much the Republicans seem to be discouraged from using it,” said Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College.
In other words, while Democrats may be happy to have more votes in the bank at this stage, that could mean that more Republicans will show up when polling stations during early in person voting and on election day. We’ll find out soon enough as in-person voting began Monday in Florida.
The national panorama
Nationwide the picture is similar. Voters have cast a total of 12.5 million ballots in those states that report early totals, with a total of 6.7 million votes cast by Democrats and 3.1 million by Republicans, a 29-point difference of 54 to 25%. Independent voters made up 2.5 million, or roughly 20%.
However, it should be pointed out that this is an incomplete picture. In fact, across all states, more than 28 million ballots have been cast in total, but not all states report early voting data. In fact, only a handful, 13 to be precise, report the party registration data on those ballots cast.
In Pennsylvania, registered Democrats are ahead by a whopping 57-point margin, 73% to 17%.
In North Carolina, registered Democrats are leading by 21 points, 46% to 25%, with registered Republicans even trailing independent voters (28%).
In Florida, the numbers are eye-popping. By Monday, out of a total of 2.5 million ballots cast, registered Democrats accounted for 1,227,000 votes while registered Republicans had about 757,000, according to the U.S. Elections Project.
Most of the remaining 20% of the ballots mailed in so far have been cast by independent voters who have no party affiliation orbelong to minor third parties.
Florida is notorious for close and messy elections, most famously in 2000 when George W. Bush beat Al Gore by 537 votes. But, reforms since then have greatly improved the system, with unlimited mail voting and in-person early voting at regional centers. As a result, Florida voters have increasingly gravitated toward the convenience of mail voting and early voting.
That was only accentuated after the coronavirus pandemic exploded in March. But this year is still extraordinary.
As of Monday, almost 5.8 million Florida voters have requested mail ballots for the presidential election, up from 3.3 million in 2016. More than 40% have already been returned. However, it’s still very early, with 80% of registered voters still to cast their ballots.
Republicans argue that the strong early voting by Democrats is nothing to worry about, with an avalanche of their votes still to come.
“ It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” said Yali Nunez, the Republican party’s Hispanic media spokesperson. “What we care about is about is being strong at the finish line,” she added.
She said the party encouraged its supporters to vote by whatever way makes them most comfortable. “In Florida, absentee ballots are very safe,” she said. If voters choose to vote in person, she encouraged them to “take all the necessary precautions” such as social distancing and wearing a mask.
Trump has made more visits to Florida than any other state in recent weeks, to drum up support, telling supporters this week via Twitter, "Send in your absentee ballot."
"Not as safe"
While experts reject Trump’s warnings about vote fraud, they warn that voting by mail does result in a higher ballot rejection rate than voting in person due to human errors, such as a missing signature. “I totally understand why Democrats are pushing it for the health reasons, but the fact is that it’s not as safe,” said Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida.
In Florida that has typically accounted for about 1% - 1.5% of ballots, with more Democrat ballots being rejected. But so far this year, Smith said the rejection rate for Democrats is only 0.54%, compared to 0.45% for Republicans, a negligible margin.
Democrats point to data showing indicating that less than one third of their early ballots came from voters who voted in person in 2016, while almost one half of the Republicans who voted early by mail did so in person four years ago.
On the other hand, Republicans can claim that they have a higher percentage of new voters (26%) than Democrats (18.5%)
Cate also pointed out that banking your voters early is an advantage as it reduces get-out-the-vote expenses closer to election day. “It frees up resources and helps you concentrate efforts to chase down voters,” he said.
But, for now Democrats are happy to be to have their noses in front.
“We all know there is a significant Republican turnout to come, and no-one should forget that,” Schale told Univision. “There’s still a long way to go, but the Republicans typically have a turnout advantage, so basically what this shows is Democrats are pretty competitive this year with turnout,” he added.
( Ana Elena Azpurua contributed to this report.)