Nearly 100 million Americans voted early in 2020, an enormous, record-breaking figure heading into Election Day.
The early vote in 2020 has far surpassed the total early vote in 2016. The early vote surge indicates turnout in 2020 could be the highest in a century, at around 65 percent of the voting-eligible population, or about 150 million voters.
And 2016 wasn’t exactly shabby in turnout: About 60 percent of those eligible voted.
“We’re seeing a very energized, interested electorate, and we’re seeing a public, I think, that is responding to a message that you need to cast that ballot early this year,” Paul Gronke, a professor of political science at Reed College who runs the Early Voting Information Center, said.
Enthusiasm among both Democratic and Republican voters is high. President Donald Trump is the reason: His supporters are extremely motivated to reelect their guy, and the other side is extremely motivated to vote him out.
Voters also absorbed the “vote early” directive, likely motivated by safety concerns about voting during the coronavirus pandemic, and by rhetoric around the integrity of the election system, from the Trumpian attacks on mail-in voting to Democratic concerns about a dysfunctional US Postal Service.
But rather than deterring people from voting, it may have driven them to the polls. “People are responding — thankfully, not by not casting a ballot, but by casting an early ballot,” Gronke added.
Beyond turnout, the early vote data offers only partial clues about the electorate in 2020. It hints at who’s voting, how, and where they are on the electoral map. But what it absolutely can’t do is forecast the thing that many are fretting about: who is going to win.
That will have to wait until at least election night, and potentially days after. But in the meantime, Vox is here to answer all the questions you have about the early vote: what it looks like, what it means, and whether this election year might radically change how America votes, for good.
1) What did early voting turnout look like in 2020?
Due to a combination of the pandemic and increased enthusiasm, early voting and mail-in voting were more popular than ever. Last month, with 11 days left to go before the election, the number of early votes officially surpassed 2016 early vote numbers. By Election Day, more than 99 million people cast early votes — 72 percent of the entire 2016 turnout, according to US Elections Project, run by the University of Florida’s Michael McDonald.
All states offered early voting or mail-in options, though the specific rules and deadlines vary by state. Nine states — California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, and Washington — along with Washington, DC, mailed ballots to all eligible voters. Others — Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas — required specific reasons to receive a mail-in ballot.
In Texas, Washington, Montana, and Hawaii, early voter turnout surpassed total votes in 2016. In other states, early vote numbers are near total 2016 turnout numbers, including North Carolina (95 percent), Georgia (94 percent), and Florida (94 percent), suggesting total voter turnout might end up being higher than in 2016.
2) How many people voted by mail versus in person?
The majority of early votes are coming in the form of mail-in ballots, which make up about two-thirds of the more than 99 million early votes, according to data from the US Elections Project.
Trump has sought to discredit this type of voting through a disinformation campaign, but mail-in voter fraud is extremely rare. The mail-in option has also been stymied by Postal Service delays. If you have a mail-in ballot that you haven’t turned in yet, don’t mail it. Instead, you should drop it off at an election drop box or vote in person in order to guarantee your vote is counted.
People have also been turning out to a lesser extent to vote in person ahead of the election, with nearly 36 million doing so thus far. High turnout for early voting can be seen in long lines across the country.
3) Who, exactly, voted early?
According to the US Elections Project, in the 20 states that report party registration, Democrats have a 15 percentage point lead in early votes over Republicans.
However, that data is likely skewed by the inclusion of states like California (a highly populous and Democratic state) and the unavailability of data from states like Texas (also highly populous and more Republican).
TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm that uses voter file data in addition to consumer data to model early voter demographics in states where that information is unavailable, shows that Democrats have more like a 6 percentage point lead over Republicans. Of course, partisan affiliation, while indicative of how a person might vote, doesn’t guarantee a person will vote for their party’s candidates.
Perhaps most notable are the early turnout numbers among people who didn’t vote at all in 2016. So far, 26.5 million people voted in 2020 who didn’t vote at all in 2016, according to TargetSmart data. “Those are the people who have the ability to change the composition of the electorate relative to 2016,” TargetSmart CEO Tom Bonier told Vox.
Just over one-quarter of these new voters are under 30, suggesting these aren’t just people who are newly of voting age. Those new voters, he said, are also more likely to be Democrats and more likely to be Asian or Hispanic than the electorate at large. This group also includes seniors over 65, who may have sat out in 2016. Some of these voters returned in the 2018 midterms, part of the reason for the “blue wave” back then, Bonier said, but they’re returning again in 2020.
Younger voters also turned out, and so far it’s an “astronomical” difference compared to 2016, according to Kristian Lundberg, an associate researcher at the Center for Information Research & Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). In Texas, for example, more than 1 million voters ages 18 to 29 had voted early in this election as of October 27, compared to just a little more than 100,000 who voted early in 2016. Total youth turnout was 1.2 million in Texas in 2016.
4) What kinds of problems did we see with early voting?
The biggest headlines from the early vote were about long lines, long lines, long lines. Long lines are sometimes celebrated as a sign of high voter enthusiasm. Pandemic safety protocols, a reduced number of polling sites, and poll worker shortages in some places also slow down the process. Sometimes technical glitches at voting sites cause delays, which ripple throughout the day.
And observers often point to the hours-long wait times that many voters face as part of a pattern of voter suppression.
Voters in many of America’s peer democracies don’t spend hours standing in line to cast their ballots, and US voting advocates believe reforms such as expanding early voting and standardizing some voting procedures and resources could ease wait times. That would also cut down on more nefarious suppression tactics, such as reducing the number of polling stations in minority neighborhoods.
In 2020, experts see a combination of the problems that have long plagued US voting, along with the unpredictable realities of this strange year of voting in a pandemic.
Typically, states open many more polling sites on Election Day, compared to the early voting period. Election officials have to do their best to anticipate how many people are going to vote, and when, but that’s always an imperfect exercise. And especially in places that are just trying out early voting for the first time, or are offering expanded vote-by-mail options, it can be hard to precisely predict turnout and rush times.
Ivelisse Cuevas-Molina, an assistant professor of political science at Fordham University, pointed out that in New York, the lines were long, but the state was also deploying early voting for the first time in a presidential election. Some growing pains are to be expected as the state adjusts to a new system.
“But in places like Georgia, where they’ve had early voting for a while now, we should be seeing more efficiency,” she said. “And when you don’t see efficiency in places like Georgia, with early voting, you can make the conclusion that there is voter suppression happening in a place that is supposed to be experienced.”
Technical glitches also happen, as they did in Fulton County, Georgia, which caused delays as officials had to reboot the software. Officials in Fort Bend County, Texas, had to extend polling hours at the start of early voting because of a technical error. Issues like these do crop up in places and add to wait times — although, that’s one major benefit of early voting. It’s usually not someone’s last chance to vote.
Finally, some voting advocates have expressed concerns about voter intimidation, fueled by some of Trump’s rhetoric around voter fraud and his encouragement to supporters to “watch the polls.”
In Pinellas County, Florida, law enforcement officials posted sheriff’s deputies at polling sites after two armed security guards claiming to represent the Trump campaign came to a voting location. (The Trump campaign denied any affiliation in a statement to reporters.) In Pennsylvania, the Trump campaign video-recorded voters dropping off ballots in drop boxes, which could potentially constitute illegal voter intimidation.
So there have been a few troubling examples of possible voter intimidation but, so far, no large-scale threats to voters. Voter intimidation is always illegal, and voting advocates say voters should report any possible violations. The Election Protection hotline is one helpful resource.
5) What kind of problems did we see with voting by mail?
Mail-in voting is a bit more complicated to track, because only some states, like Florida, have started processing mail-in ballots. Plenty of other states, including swing states Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, can’t begin to process or count ballots until Election Day.
The biggest concern around mail-in ballots is the rejection rate — that is, the number of ballots that are tossed out (for whatever reason) as a percentage of the total number submitted.
Mail-in ballots typically have a higher rate of rejection than ballots cast in polling places. This isn’t because of voter fraud, but because humans are, well, human, and make mistakes. Mail-in ballots can get rejected in some states if a voter’s ballot signature doesn’t match the one in their voter registration file. Sometimes voters forget to sign at all, or use the wrong color ink. And many ballots are disqualified because they arrive too late to be counted.
In 2016, slightly less than 1 percent of the 33.4 million mail-in ballots submitted were rejected. But the number of people voting by mail this year is much higher — more than 63 million people have turned in mail ballots in 2020 — and that likely includes many voters who’ve never cast ballots by mail before.
“There is a definite concern this year that there will be higher ballot rejection rates as new people are voting by mail and mistakes are made,” Gronke said. If the race is super close in certain swing states, that rejection rate could be the difference between who wins and who loses. Trump, remember, won by fewer than 80,000 votes in three states in 2016.
Gabriel R. Sanchez, a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico and a principal at Latino Decisions, said that based on the data he has seen, Latinos, African Americans, and younger voters are among those whose mail ballots are more likely to have problems that get them tossed.
“That’s something obviously that concerns a lot of folks,” he said. “Regardless of the horse-race element, just in terms of those segments of the electorate feeling like they have their vote counted.”
Still, rhetoric on “making your vote count” has likely helped motivate voters to make sure their ballots are accepted. Election officials and voting advocacy groups have emphasized that voters need to carefully fill out ballots, and many states allow voters to track their ballots to make sure they’re received, processed, and accepted. “Cure” processes have also been set up in most places so voters can remedy discrepancies or errors that might have led to their ballots being rejected.
Still, experts point out that these procedures are far from perfect, and some are still being litigated. For example, election officials might not have a voter’s current phone number or email address to swiftly contact them if their ballot is rejected.
Sanchez said his data shows that some Latino voters, for instance, have had to change addresses because of Covid-19 financial hardships, which means they may never get a notice that there’s a problem with their ballot should one occur.
And while ballots can be “cured” for signature problems or other errors, there’s nothing voters can do if their ballots arrive at election offices past the deadline. (Which is why, if you still plan to vote with a mail-in ballot, you need to drop it off at a designated location.)
Bonier, of TargetSmart, said that, so far, there isn’t any evidence of disproportionate numbers of mail-in ballots being rejected this year. “But the absence of evidence doesn’t equal the absence of that phenomenon,” he said.
“The hope is that those numbers will be reasonably low,” he added. “But, unfortunately, I think in a lot of these places, we just won’t know, until we get there.”
6) What do the early voting numbers mean for overall 2020 turnout?
The early voting turnout in 2020 is unprecedented.
In 2016, about 41 percent of voters cast ballots before Election Day, which breaks down to about 24 percent by mail and 17 percent who voted early in person, according to the US Election Assistance Commission.
In 2020, voters cast three-quarters of the total number of votes in 2016. Plus, around one-third of voters are still expected to vote on Election Day, according to the Democracy Fund.
“It is, of course, enormous, and of a scale that we haven’t seen,” said John Fortier, the director of governmental studies at the Bipartisan Policy Center and author of Absentee and Early Voting: Trends, Promises and Perils. “And usually, I do caution people, we shouldn’t read the tea leaves about early voting too much. Because, of course, you could see many people showing up early, and then the other people don’t show up later — and then we don’t have higher turnout.”
“But, I mean, the enthusiasm here, and the amount that we’re seeing, is just off the charts,” he added.
Fortier also pointed out that sometimes, the novelty of the new method of voting — whether early or by mail — can sometimes generate interest and enthusiasm, so “there is a crush at the very beginning of that period” that might taper off, before picking up again on Election Day.
Of course, this year is also different because of the coronavirus. “People are obviously getting the message — I think a good message — that there’s some incentive to get your ballot in early,” Fortier said. “Also, we tend to think of very early voters as being the most committed to acandidate or party.”
But even with all of that, forecasters still think the United States could hit 65 percent turnout — which, while still leaving out many voters, could be the highest in a century.
Turnout was about 60 percent in 2016, at about 137 million people. The website FiveThirtyEight is predicting turnout of about 154 million people, based on polls of voter enthusiasm and other data. It could still be a record, and anything in the high 60s, or close to 70 percent turnout, Fortier said, “would be just extraordinary.”
7) What do the early voting numbers mean for the outcome of the election?
Not much! Sorry to disappoint those of you who really want to read the tea leaves, but the reality is that the early voting data just isn’t useful for predicting the outcome of the election.
Yes, Democrats have an edge in early voting overall. Registered Democrats voted early at a higher rate than Republicans, but that number is narrowing.
Democrats are voting in much greater numbers by mail, which is a big reason they have such a big advantage in the early vote count. This was expected, especially as President Trump’s false but nonetheless repeated claims about voter fraud filtered down to his supporters. So Republicans showed up for early in-person voting, and even more are expected to turn out on Election Day.
“I think we can safely say at this point that, yes, Republicans are just more likely to vote in person, whether it’s early in-person or on Election Day,” TargetSmart’s Bonier said. “But then, the remaining question is: Will enough of them do so in order to offset the Democratic advantage that’s been built in mail balloting, which in some of these states is hundreds of thousands of votes?”
Nationally, maybe not — especially with populous blue states like California in the mix. But that doesn’t really matter because the popular vote isn’t how America elects presidents. And in places like Florida, Republicans chipped away at Democrats’ early vote lead.
Again, party registration itself is an imperfect metric, because it doesn’t predict with certainty whether someone will vote for Biden or Trump. And not all voters affiliate themselves with a political party; unaffiliated voters cast about one-quarter of all early votes in states where that data is available.
So do yourself a favor and don’t try to make predictions about the outcome of this election based on early voting trends, because it will be enormously stressful and still fruitless.
8) Ugh, okay, fine. But what does all this early voting mean for how soon we’ll know the results of the election? Might that at least come in early?
We’ll know the results when we know the results.
Depending on how the electoral map shakes out, it might be possible to get a sense of whether Biden or Trump has won on election night. But more likely, if the election is very close, it’s going to take a lot longer to declare an official winner, even if some news organizations anoint presumptive victors.
States have different rules on vote processing and counting, and that will make a huge difference in how results are reported. Some states, such as Florida and Arizona, have already started to process and count mail-in ballots. North Carolina has also begun processing ballots — basically making sure the ballot is accepted and matches the voter files — and though it can’t count until Election Day, putting the ballots in counting machines is the easier part. But states such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania can’t even start processing mail-in ballots until Election Day. Michigan can start processing ballots the day before Election Day.
Those disparities in vote counting could make for a few “mirages” — both red and blue.
Because Democrats have an edge in early voting, specifically in mail-in voting, states like Florida and North Carolina could very well post results that look favorable to Democrats early in the night. This could be a so-called “blue mirage,” where it looks like Biden is about to win a state like North Carolina only to see those results tighten and tighten.
Meanwhile, a “red mirage” could happen elsewhere on the map, specifically those states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan that are processing and counting ballots much later. Here, the opposite phenomenon could happen: A “red mirage” might give the impression that Trump is way ahead, only to see his lead shrink and shrink. It’s going to take much, much longer to count ballots in those states, and it may take days to declare a presumptive winner.
Election officials are preparing for this. Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said she is asking counties to update their election results periodically, rather than all at once, to avoid the appearance of massive shifts that might feed conspiracy theories.
The important thing for voters, however, is to expect to wait.
9) So is early voting, in all its forms, going to be a permanent thing now?
2020 is a truly unusual year: a pandemic, an economic crisis, political rhetoric that’s undermining democracy and making people fearful of being disenfranchised. All of that makes it hard to know whether the explosion of early voting this year is an outlier, or the start of a new normal.
As experts pointed out, the number of people voting early, either in person or by mail, was already increasing gradually, and even without all of the crises that have happened this year, it was expected to grow. This year just supercharged everything: Voters who’d typically go to the polls opted to vote by mail. And many, many states changed to make it easier to vote by mail.
What emerged from necessity could become more permanent, as both voters and election officials realize there might be better ways to run elections. Once you make it easier for people to vote, either by mail or in person, they’re just not going to want to go back.
This is the “habituation effect,” as Gronke, of Reed College’s Early Voting Information Center, calls it. “When people cast their ballot via one of these new methods, they tend to do it again. And so I do think we’re going to see a lot of people who previously had thought, ‘Oh, polling places is the way to do it,’ vote by mail [this year] and say, ‘Wow, that was easy. That was really convenient. I liked that.’ So I do think that this is going to be a permanent shift.”
And it’s not just voters. Election officials might have a few epiphanies, too, especially when it comes to voting by mail. It’s easier to run and staff elections that way, and it can be a lot less expensive than running in-person elections. “It’s possible in places like Nevada, Montana, New Jersey, Vermont, DC, these states that moved temporarily to all-mail ballots, that they may decide to do so on a more permanent basis in the future because it’s just cheaper,” McDonald, of the US Elections Project, said.
Gronke predicts another spurt of election reform, similar to what happened after the 2000 election, and the Florida recount, in the race between George W. Bush and Al Gore, including possible proposals at the federal level to expand the franchise. House Democrats have already passed a voting rights bill, and should Democrats retake Congress and the White House, they will likely pursue that as a top priority.
Still, the 2020 election has shown how partisanship has leaked even into the ways people choose to vote, not just whom they vote for. Democrats, so far, have overwhelmingly favored voting by mail, while Republicans have preferred voting in person, in part because of the president’s rhetoric. Depending on the outcome of the election, those divides could harden even more, and become a roadblock to reform.