Early voting in the 2020 presidential election is on track to shatter records, potentially transforming the way Americans cast ballots for years to come.
As of Friday, At least 52 million voters have cast ballots in the 2020 election, according to Michael McDonald, an Associate Professor of Political Science at University of Florida who specializes in elections, and the U.S. Elections Project.
That figure accounts for over a third of all votes cast in the 2016 presidential election (38.1%), with less than two weeks to go until Election Day.
Another eye-popping number? With over 6.3 million votes cast, Texas surpassed 70% of its total 2016 voter turnout.
Americans’ rush to vote is leading election experts to predict that a record 150 million votes may be cast and turnout rates could be higher than in any presidential election since 1908.
“It’s crazy,” McDonald told the Associated Press. “We can be certain this will be a high-turnout election."
On Thursday, the voter turnout hit a significant milestone for McDonald: It surpassed the 47.2 million number of the pre-election early voting period that he tracked during the 2016 election.
"I stopped updating #earlyvote statistics on Election Day in 2016," he wrote on Twitter, "so the 47.2 number is a pretty good benchmark as it does not include mail ballots that arrived on or after Election Day, which other sources may report for total 2016 'early vote.'"
Of note, over 38.6 million of those are mail-in ballots, and over 17.5 million are in-person votes, though the U.S. Elections Project notes that "some states do not differentiate between mail ballots and in-person votes."
Texas leads the way with over 6.8 million ballots cast, followed by California (Over 6.3 million), and Florida (Over 5.2 million).
Other states to cross the 1 million voter threshold as of Saturday:
- North Carolina (Nearly 3 million)
- Georgia (Over 2.3 million)
- New Jersey (Over 2.3 million)
- Michigan (Over 1.9 million)
- Virginia (Over 1.8 million)
- Washington State (Over 1.8 million)
- Ohio (Over 1.8 million)
- Illinois (Over 1.8 million)
- Colorado (Over 1.5 million)
- Tennessee (Over 1.4 million)
- Pennsylvania (Over 1.4 million)
- Massachusetts (Over 1.4 million)
- Wisconsin (Over 1.3 million)
- Arizona (Over 1.2 million)
Florida's number represents 55% of their total 2016 turnout. California sits at 43.6%.
For Texas, the state's massive turnout accounts for 76.4% of their total 2016 turnout.
The following states have crossed the 50% threshold:
- Texas (76.4%)
- Montana (67.2%)
- North Carolina (62%)
- New Mexico (60.9%)
- Vermont (59.3%)
- New Jersey (57.1%)
- Georgia (56%)
- Tennessee (55%)
- Colorado (53.7%)
In Pennsylvania, half of the requested mail-in ballots have been returned, according to Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar.
Notably, according to McDonald, registered Democrats have returned the ballots at a significantly higher rate (55.3% compared to 39.9%). In Pennsylvania, Democrats have returned over 1 million ballots (out of over 1.8 million requested) compared to over 295,000 returned out of over 740,000 requested by registered Republicans.
The Republican return rate is the same as those who have no party affiliation at 39.9% – over 125,000 returned compared to over 313,000 requested.
"It's not just that half of PA's mail ballots have been returned, its also that registered Democrats have returned them at a much higher rate than Republicans, a pattern happening across the U.S.," McDonald wrote on Twitter.
One of the only states to not report any data thus far, New York, began early voting for the first time in a presidential election Saturday. Long lines were spotted in New York City and across Upstate New York.
New York City council member Mark Levine tweeted a video of people waiting in line to vote in Manhattan.
"Line goes all way around block and now starting to wrap around second time. This is unprecedented in NYC. We are in a whole new world," said Levine.
Lengthy waits have been seen in early voting states across the country, but it doesn't seem to be deterring turnout. In fact, many voters said they were glad to see so many people voting early.
Jackie Burton and her son Lanair visited a polling site on the north side of Raleigh, North Carolina, late Monday morning. Although the line stretched for at least 75 yards out the door, they were able to get through in about 20 minutes. She said she didn't mind the wait.
“Many have died for this right for us to vote, and we by all means need to take advantage of it because every vote does count,” she says.
More than 900,000 North Carolinians visited the polls during the first four days of in-person early voting. That led to waits of an hour or more to cast a ballot in some parts of the state. Read more about early voting in the Tar Heel State.
The same was true in Florida last week. In Orange County, Florida, lines at several of the polling places stretched around buildings and blocks and even out into the streets. Some people reported waiting for hours, even as it started raining.
Christa Ruvolo said it took her 2 hours 15 minutes to vote, but she was willing to wait as long as needed.
“I know there’s been a lot of stress on the Post Office with early mail-in ballots, so I wanted to be sure it was counted. I wanted to get a head start and give the Post Office a break," she said.
Scott Smith, who lives in downtown Orlando, said he has not missed an opportunity to vote in a presidential election.
“It's your right that you have, it's the only way you get your voice heard is to vote,” he said.
Evidence of long lines was also found in Seminole, Flagler and Brevard counties. Read more about early voting in Florida.
Historically, in Texas, voter turnout has not been anything to brag about. The 2020 general election, however, is a whole new ballgame.
In Travis County, home of Austin and where 97% of eligible voters registered in time for the presidential election, 31,946 voted on Monday alone, and as of 10 a.m. Tuesday 7,000 people had already voted.
In Harris County, which is Texas’ most populous county and includes Houston and the surrounding area, more than 100,000 voters came to the polls for four straight days, which works out to an average of 9,000 votes per hour. Read more about early voting in the Lone Star State here.
In Wisconsin, More than 75,000 people in Wisconsin cast ballots on the first day of early in-person voting, according to the state elections commission.
Voters waited in lines around the state on Tuesday for a chance to cast their ballots in person. Early in-person voting will be an option through Nov. 1 in the state. Because of potential delays with mail delivery, the state elections commission has recommended that mail-in ballots be sent no later than Oct. 27 to ensure they arrive in time.
The highest in-person turnout was seen in the state’s largest city, Milwaukee, where 4,025 people took advantage of the option. That was followed by Madison, with 1,821, and Eau Claire, where 1,283 voted early and in person.
The Elections Commission reported that 75,519 in-person absentee ballots were cast on Tuesday. As of Wednesday morning, that number had risen to 79,774. The total number of absentee ballots cast, both in-person and by mail, was 1,021,397 as of Wednesday.
Trump won by fewer than 23,000 votes in 2016, and the race looks to be a close one again.
In West Virginia, residents turned out in droves to cast their ballots on the first day of early in-person voting Wednesday, less than two weeks before the November election.
Long lines were reported in several polling places throughout the state.
Todd Dorcas of Cross Lanes waited for more than an hour to vote in his hometown in Kanawha County, the state’s largest county, which had the most early voting locations with eight.
The nation’s turbulent political climate had him chomping at the bit to vote.
“There definitely needs to be some change. We need some change,” Dorcas said. “We’re going in the wrong direction.”
In Charleston, the line at a downtown polling place office wrapped around a city block.
More than 91,000 voters had returned absentee ballots in West Virginia as of Tuesday, or 66% of the ballots requested. The deadline to request an absentee ballot is Oct. 28.
In addition, more than 1,000 voters have cast ballots using an electronic absentee method that is limited to active military and overseas voters as well as those with a qualifying disability.
Requests for absentee ballots have surpassed 2016 levels in Mississippi with two weeks left before Election Day.
The Clarion-Ledger reported Wednesday that the Statewide Election Management System reported that more than 120,200 absentee ballots had been requested as of Sunday compared to fewer than 111,000 four years ago. Almost 116,000 had been sent, also above the total for 2016.
Secretary of State Michael Watson said Monday about 89,500 completed ballots had been received at election offices. That compares to 103,000 ballots that were received in all four years ago.
Republicans have been bracing themselves for this early Democratic advantage for months, as they’ve watched President Donald Trump rail against mail-in ballots and raise unfounded worries about fraud. Polling, and now early voting, suggest the rhetoric has turned his party’s rank and file away from a method of voting that, traditionally, they dominated in the weeks before Election Day.
That gives Democrats a tactical advantage in the final stretch of the campaign. In many critical battleground states, Democrats have “banked” a chunk of their voters and can turn their time and money toward harder-to-find infrequent voters.
But it does not necessarily mean Democrats will lead in votes by the time ballots are counted. Both parties anticipate a swell of Republican votes on Election Day that could, in a matter of hours, dramatically shift the dynamic.
“The Republican numbers are going to pick up,” John Couvillon, a GOP pollster who is tracking early voting, told the AP. “The question is at what velocity, and when?”
Couvillon said Democrats can’t rest on their voting lead, but Republicans are themselves making a big gamble. A number of factors, from rising virus infections to the weather, can impact in-person turnout on Election Day. “If you’re putting all your faith into one day of voting, that’s really high risk,” Couvillon said.
That’s why, despite Trump’s rhetoric, his campaign and party are encouraging their own voters to cast ballots by mail or early and in-person. The campaign, which has been sending volunteers and staffers into the field for months despite the pandemic, touts that it has registered more voters this year than Democrats in key swing states like Florida and Pennsylvania — a sharp reversal from the usual pattern as a presidential election looms.
But it’s had limited success in selling absentee voting. In key swing states, Republicans remain far less interested in voting by mail.
In Pennsylvania, more than three-quarters of the more than 437,000 ballots sent through the mail so far have been from Democrats. In Florida, half of all ballots sent through the mail so far have been from Democrats and less than a third of them from Republicans. Even in Colorado, a state where every voter is mailed a ballot and Republicans usually dominate the first week of voting, only 19% of ballots returned have been from Republicans.
“This is all encouraging, but three weeks is a lifetime,” Democratic data strategist Tom Bonier said of the early vote numbers. “We may be midway through the first quarter and Democrats have put a couple of points on the board.”
The massive amount of voting has occurred without any of the violent skirmishes at polling places that some activists and law enforcement officials feared. It has featured high-profile errors — 100,000 faulty mail ballots sent out in New York, 50,000 in Columbus, Ohio, and a vendor supplying that state and Pennsylvania blaming delays on sending ballots on overwhelming demand. But there’s little evidence of the mass disruption that some feared as election offices had to abruptly shift to deal with the influx of early voting.
The obvious enthusiasm among Democrats has cheered party operatives, but they note that it’s hard to tell which way turnout will eventually fall. Republicans may be just as motivated, but saving themselves for Election Day.
“High turnout can benefit either side,” Bonier said. “It just depends.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.