Voters stick to pandemic-era habits, as early turnout surges
By Nick Corasaniti
Days into early voting in the 2022 midterm elections, states across the country have seen a surge of voters casting ballots at in-person voting sites and by mail, the latest sign that the 2020 election ushered in a transformation in the way Americans vote.
Through the first five days of early voting in Georgia, in-person turnout is up 70% percent compared with turnout in the 2018 midterm elections, according to the secretary of state’s office. In North Carolina, absentee ballot requests are up 114% percent compared with requests in 2018, according to the board of elections. And in Florida, the total early vote is up 50% percent compared with the early vote in 2018.
Election experts say the signs suggest overall turnout will be strong. But they are quick to caution that it is still early in the voting calendar; many states are less than a week in, and some have not started. With voters’ behaviors so clearly changed by pandemic-era rules, it is unclear whether this rush to vote will lead to record-breaking totals after Election Day on Nov. 8.
Still, one significant shift in how American elections are conducted has become clear: Election Day has become, and will most likely always be, election month.
“There has been a sea change of voter attitudes that has not abated,” said John Couvillon, a pollster who has worked with Republican candidates. “When you do a culture shift like that, you never go 100% back to the way things were, for the simple reason that people, who out of habit may have been happy voting on Election Day, said, ‘Wait a minute — I can vote from the convenience of my kitchen table? This is so much simpler.’”
Nationally, 5.5 million voters had cast ballots as of Thursday, according to Couvillon’s count. Democrats make up 51% percent of those voters and Republicans 30%. Couvillon and other analysts did not have data to compare those numbers to 2018. But he noted it was a slight dip from Democrats’ advantage at this point in 2020 — a presidential election year, which always draws a much higher turnout. Then, 17.3 million votes had been cast, and the partisan split was 55% Democrat and 26% Republican. Some states, such as Arizona, were following a similar trend, he said.
But the tailing off for Democrats is only marginal, and many election experts view the energy in both parties as another sign of a high-turnout election.
“We’re seeing both sides being really energized this time around, which is pretty unique to a midterm cycle,” said Patrick Ruffini, a Republican pollster. “Normally, the out party is just far more energized and enthused about voting.”
Ruffini said he believed the Supreme Court decision eliminating federal abortion rights could drive Democrats out to vote against opponents of abortion, although it was not yet clear how many.
Voters are requesting fewer absentee ballots than they did two years ago — an expected adjustment to a safer period in the pandemic and a turnout drop from a presidential election. But requests are still significantly above 2018 levels in many states.
The increase in absentee and mail voting could lead to a replay of 2020, when multiple states did not have final results in close elections for several days. Mail ballots take longer to tally because the envelopes must first be opened, inspected and prepared to be counted. Some states, including the battlegrounds of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, do not allow election officials to begin that process until Election Day, and Michigan allows just two days of processing before Election Day. Wisconsin and Michigan have seen nearly twice as many absentee ballots cast compared with during the 2018 election.
In the 2020 election, Democrats were much more likely to vote absentee and early than Republicans were, leading to the false perception on Election Day — often labeled the “red mirage” — that former President Donald Trump was on track for reelection.
That partisan pattern appears to be holding this year, although some early voting states show the gap narrowing slightly. In particular, young voters, who often lean Democratic, are showing a stronger inclination to vote on Election Day, said Tom Bonier, CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm.
“It’s the youngest voters who are shifting the most,” Bonier said.
Such shifts can make it difficult for analysts and campaigns to look at past patterns, party affiliation and demographics and assess which side is winning.
Bonier pointed to Florida as an example of a state whose early vote totals send mixed signals.
At this point in 2018, Republicans made up a larger share of the 567,000 early voters in Florida than Democrats — by about 7 percentage points. In 2020, Democrats were up 21 percentage points at this point in early voting, when 1.9 million people had cast their ballots. This year, Democrats are leading in early voting in Florida by 3.5 points, and early vote totals are around 845,000 so far.
“A Democratic partisan could look at that and say, ‘Well, look, we’re running way ahead. We were down 7 at this point in ’18, and we’re up 3 now. That’s a 10-point margin swing; good for us,’” Bonier said. “Republicans will look at it and say, ‘At this point in 2020, we were down 21. Now we’re only down 3. Good for us.’”
Michael McDonald, a voter turnout expert at the University of Florida, said his clearest takeaway so far was that there is high interest in the election.
“I think we need to get past this potential Black Friday rush of voting that you get at the very beginning when the doors open,” he said. “But the fact that you’re even seeing it, that tells you that this isn’t going to be a low-turnout election. It’s just the question is going to be how high of a turnout election we’ll get.”
Georgia has perhaps seen the largest early surge. Each day since early in-person voting began Monday, the state has set daily early vote turnout records for a midterm election. As of Friday, 519,300 voters had cast a ballot early in person, compared with 304,800 in the same period in 2018, according to data from the secretary of state’s office.
The state has also seen a surge in absentee ballot requests. The previous record, according to the secretary of state’s office, was roughly 223,000 requests made during the 2018 midterms. This cycle has eclipsed 239,800 requests, and there are likely thousands more still to arrive. Local election officials have encouraged early voting in an effort to alleviate long lines on Election Day.