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Vote-by-mail and early voting helped prevent a turnout plummet on Tuesday

Vote-by-mail was the hero of the pandemic primaries.

Florida, Illinois, Arizona vote in contests shadowed by coronavirus pandemic
Voters cast their ballot at the Orange County Supervisor of Elections office in Orlando, FL, on March 17, 2020, for the state’s primary.
Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Democratic voters largely weathered the coronavirus pandemic and the demands of social distancing on Tuesday, to turn out to vote in three primary states. They did so with a big assist from early voting and voting-by-mail.

In 2016, just over 1.7 million ballots were cast in the Florida Democratic presidential primary. As of this writing, 2020 turnout in Florida has exceeded its 2016 levels, with NBC News estimating turnout at around 1.8 million — with more ballots still to be counted.

In Arizona, about 410,000 votes were cast in the 2016 Democratic primary. As of this writing, more than 500,000 ballots have been counted in Arizona’s 2020 primary, and more remain to be counted in the state as well.

Illinois, meanwhile, appears to be the exception to this trend. About 2 million voters cast ballots in that state’s 2016 Democratic president primary. And though some ballots remain to be counted, currently only about 1.5 million have been counted so far. The state is unlikely to reach the turnout mark it hit in 2016.

As my colleague Emily Stewart noted, Illinois faced particular difficulties in its voting process — particularly in Chicago, where the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners made a last minute (and rejected) request that the state postpone voting, and where a shortage of poll workers led to reports of difficulties with ballot access.

And as my colleagues Nicole Narea and Ella Nilsen noted shortly after these three states were called for former Vice President Joe Biden, in-person turnout did appear to drop on Tuesday — but vote-by-mail and early voting salvaged what could have otherwise been disastrously low-turnout elections. In Florida, for example, nearly 1.1 million voters voted early or by mail, a 20 percent increase from 2016.

There is no way to know what the world could look like during November’s general election, or whether voters would feel comfortable leaving their homes to cast a ballot on Election Day. Many public health experts predict that Americans may need to take drastic measures to reduce the spread of coronavirus well past the general election.

If that happens, robust access to voting-by-mail will be an essential way to ensure that every eligible American can participate in the 2020 election. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), meanwhile, have proposed legislation that would expand both in-person early voting and voting by mail.