Early Voting and the Midterms
Election Day just is not what it used to be.
Why? Because now it’s Election Week, or even Election Month. As states have expanded in-person early voting and eased absentee ballot rules, more and more Americans are casting their ballots long before the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November. In 2020, with the pandemic raging, voting by mail — or at least voting without hundreds of other people milling about — felt like a health necessity. An incredible 69 percent of the voters who cast ballots in the 2020 election did so before Election Day, either through mail — about 43 percent of voters chose that option — or by in-person early voting (26 percent of voters went this route).
The number of voters casting ballots before Election Day has risen rapidly over the last generation. In the 2012 presidential election, just 40 percent of Americans voted before Election Day. Eight years earlier, in 2004, that number was only 20 percent.
According to the early voting numbers we have for 2022 so far, it appears the trend of Americans taking advantage of the opportunity to vote before Election Day will continue through the midterms this year. Does that positive feeling mean early voting entices more people to vote? Let’s take a look.
What is early voting?
There are three types of early voting: voting by mail, absentee voting (which often is done by mail, but is a distinct concept), and in-person voting at a designated polling location before Election Day.
As MIT’s Elections Lab explains, absentee voting was first deployed during the Civil War when Union and Confederate soldiers were offered the chance to cast ballots from their battlefield units. After that, states began to allow absentee voting to accommodate people who would be away from home on Election Day (attending college or a work function, for example) or who were seriously ill. Until the last generation or two, absentee voting rules have been very strict. You could not request an absentee ballot just because you wanted to avoid long lines, for example. But that started to change in the 1980s when California became the first state to allow eligible voters to request absentee ballots for any reason at all. Today, 31 states have adopted these so-called “no-excuse” absentee laws.
Another six states have put into place what is called “voting by mail.” In California, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington, the state automatically mails ballots to all registered voters. Rules vary by state, but voters generally return these ballots at a secure drop box or, less often, by mail. That’s why MIT says, “it’s more accurate to describe these states as ‘distribute ballots by mail’ states.”
In-person early voting is just what it sounds like: going to a polling place, just not on Election Day. In the 1980s, Texas became the first state to allow it. Florida, Nevada, Georgia, Tennessee, and Iowa followed in the 1990s. Today, 46 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands offer this option. Only four states — Alabama, Connecticut, Mississippi, and New Hampshire — do not.
The arguments for and against early voting
According to NYC Votes, there are five primary benefits of early voting, but they all boil down to
this argument: making it easier to vote means more people will vote. This is especially true for people like hourly wage employees who might not otherwise want or be able to take off work to vote. (As Bloomberg Law reports, 29 states plus the District of Columbia also require employers to give workers time off to vote on Election Day, but only 22 of those require that time to be paid time off.)
Early voting is also said to reduce voter wait times and to reduce the stress put on poll workers. (The people who man voting sites are volunteers, and it has been increasingly difficult to find enough volunteers to staff all of the polling sites across the country every Election Day.)
The American Civil Liberties Union says, “Voting is the cornerstone of our democracy and the fundamental right that underpins all our civil liberties. … Early voting helps to reduce long lines on Election Day that may discourage voters from exercising their right, or make it impossible if they must return to work.”
But there are arguments against early voting, too.
In a 2014 article for Politico, Northwestern University School of Law professors Eugene Kontorovich and John McGinnis argued early voting limits information available to voters (late-breaking news, after all, can influence a voter’s mind) and may “help incumbents and quasi-incumbents like vice presidents, who generally have the advantage of having been in the public eye longer” stay in office.
The scholars also argue early voting could make us a more divided country. They wrote, “People will be able to vote when the mood strikes them — after seeing an inflammatory ad, for example. Voting then becomes an incoherent summing of how various individuals feel at a series of moments, not how the nation feels at a particular moment. This weakens civic cohesiveness …”
And what about increasing civic participation? Is the premise of early voting correct? Does early voting make it more likely that more Americans will vote?
The numbers on early voting and turnout
According to a 2009 study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin for the Pew Charitable Trusts, unlike same day voter registration (whereby an eligible person can register on the same day they get to cast a ballot), early voting does not boost voter turnout.
The state of Florida fully implemented early voting in the 2004 election. A 2010 report by the state senate looked at whether more people came out to vote in the elections following the implementation of early voting. They found it did not.
Before early voting, from 1954 to 2002, the average Election Day turnout in Florida among registered voters in a presidential election was 74.6 percent. For midterm elections, it was 54.4 percent. According to the report, here is what happened during the next three election cycles:
2004 presidential election: 74 percent voter turnout
2006 midterm election: 47 percent voter turnout
2008 presidential election: 75 percent voter turnout
There was not much difference for presidential years and in the 2006 midterm – turnout was far lower that it was before early voting. The trend pretty much has continued since that report was issued in 2010, except in the two most recent elections. Here are more recent turnout numbers from Florida’s secretary of state:
2010 midterm election: 49 percent voter turnout
2012 presidential election: 72 percent voter turnout
2014 midterm election: 51 percent voter turnout
2016 presidential election: 75 percent voter turnout
2018 midterm election: 63 percent voter turnout
2020 presidential election: 77 percent voter turnout
And it’s not just Florida. In 2019, the campaigns and elections blog FiveThirtyEight took issue with New York Democrats’ claim that early voting in that state increased turnout. Writer Nathaniel Rakich said the state’s data simply show early voting “shifts when existing voters cast their ballots.” That phenomenon is apparent at the national level too. “From 2000 to 2014, early and mail-in votes went from accounting for 14 percent of all votes to 31.2 percent … Yet during that same period, the U.S. Elections Project found presidential turnout rates ticked up only a few points, and midterm turnout rates held steady at around 40 percent,” Rakich said.
A study by Stanford scholars released in 2020 also concluded voting by mail does not increase voter turnout.
What we know about early voting this year
As of late last night, 27 million Americans have already voted in the 2022 midterms. That includes 10.9 million who have voted early in person and about 16.1 million who have sent in ballots by mail. More than 56.6 million American voters requested a mail-in ballot.
According to a National Public Radio report, historically early voters have been much more likely to be Democrats. That trend seems to be holding this year, with at least one exception. In fact, NPR said “In Pennsylvania, which offers absentee voting ahead of time but no precinct-based early voting option, votes from registered Democrats outnumbered those from registered Republicans, 531,430 to 143,334, as of Oct. 27.” In North Carolina, Democrats who are early voters outnumber Republican early voters nearly three-to-one.
In Florida, however, it is Republicans who have cast more ballots than Democrats.
Nationally this year, about 45 percent of the people who voted early are registered as Democrats while 33 percent are registered as Republicans. The rest have no affiliation.
And what about the demographics of early voters? According to Politico, Democrats are worried that the early turnout is low among younger Americans. In North Carolina, for example, the median age of voters is around age 66 and voters aged 30 and younger account for just 5.4 percent of ballots cast so far. In 2020, younger voters made up about 16.5 percent of the early ballots cast.
Who did those young voters choose? That’s one thing that has not changed about Election Day: we won’t know the answer to that question until polls close.