Early Voting: Definitive?

By Jim Ellis

Oct. 31, 2016 — Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia have some form of what is commonly called “no excuse” early voting, and some of those release the number and type of ballots being returned well before Election Day. Can this provide us an insight into how the election is already unfolding?

There are many analytical pieces now in the public domain featuring many different conclusions. It doesn’t appear likely, however, that the early voting numbers are really telling us much. It appears that no matter what your electoral preference, you can find an early voting analysis that supports your individual political outlook.

Therefore, with so many more voters projected to take advantage of the early voting process, it’s difficult to make comparisons between this election and those from the past. It is likely that either a majority of 2016 voters, or close to one, will cast their ballots prior to the actual Nov. 8 Election Day, up from approximately 40 percent in the last presidential election.

Forty states have some type of no-excuse early voting procedure, including every individual entity west of the Mississippi River. Six states: Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, South Carolina, and Virginia, technically allow early voting, but one must indicate a coming absence from the home area during the Election Day period in order to cast an early ballot.

An additional seven states: Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island, have no early voting process. At the other end of the spectrum, Oregon and Washington require all ballots to be mailed into election processing offices, while Colorado now offers the mail-in option to every registered individual.

The ideas behind early voting were to increase voter participation and make the voting process easier for regular registrants. While there is no doubt the process is easier, as evidenced by the large number of people taking advantage of the new options, it remains debatable whether early voting, in and of itself, has actually increased voter turnout.

For example, the 2008 final vote totals yield a total presidential election voting universe of 131,426,292 ballots, which proved to be an all-time participation record. Though early voting procedures increased substantially between 2008 and 2012, voter turnout actually decreased to 129,172,069 in the latter year, a 1.7 percent overall drop. It is widely believed the 2016 election, featuring two unpopular candidates at the top of the ticket, will deliver a voter turnout model closer to 2012 than 2008, and potentially even lower, despite the greater voting procedural options.

Some interesting patterns are developing, however, as we can now see from the states that release their early voting figures.

In Arizona, more people have already voted early than did in the 2012 election, by a substantial amount. From the state’s latest public release, more than 438,000 Arizonans have voted early. In 2012, just over 285,000 did so for the entire process. All of the party classifications are up, with more Democrats (164,270) voting early as compared to Republicans (160,154). In 2012, more Republicans chose to vote early. But, non-affiliated early voting is also way up, to 114,354 from a 2012 total of 71,817.

On the other hand, Iowa, where 43 percent voted early in 2012, seems to be running behind their pace of the last election. Nevada totals are strong, with more Democrats again taking advantage of the early processes, rather than Republicans or Independents. Fewer early votes have been cast in North Carolina when compared to the last election, but the voting window is also smaller this year than in the past.

Though conclusions are already being drawn about how the election will end based upon early voting patterns, the changing systems throughout the nation suggest that we still need the final voting numbers before any tangible conclusion can be drawn.

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