In person early voting concluded last night (although mail in/absentee votes can still be accepted until Monday – Election Day for overseas voters). What have the ten days of early voting told us ?
Strong finish, but no “last day Democratic surge”
Throughout the early voting period for the November 2020 elections, early voting broke turnout records every day – this past Thursday, the previous all-time record of 531,555 in person+mail voters from the 2016 Presidential election was shattered. And early voting volume remained heavy after that; as of last night, 964,181 early voted (817,897 in person, and 146,284 by mail). Not only did the volume of early voters set daily records, but early voting turnout itself has been noticeably and consistently more Democratic: in 2016, the racial composition of the early vote was 70-27% white/black and 44-39% Democratic/Republican. As of last night, the racial breakdown was 65-30% white/black and 44-37% Democratic/Republican.
Surprisingly, the typical Democratic surge at the conclusion of early voting didn’t happen yesterday: in 2016, the last three days of early voting were 62-33% white/black; this year, the last three days were 64-30% white/black – figures in line with existing voter registration. It’s entirely possible that the strong Democratic performances of the first two days of early voting represented that surge that normally would have occurred at the end of early voting.
Even though in person early voting has concluded, mail in voters can still be accepted up until Monday (Tuesday/Election Day for military/overseas voters).
Louisianians are gradually becoming more comfortable with voting before Election Day: the first Presidential election where early voting was available was in 2008, and 15%/292,213 early voted – a record at that time. That record has repeatedly been topped with each successive Presidential/statewide election cycle: first in 2012 (18%/355,676 early voted), then 2016 (26%/531,555 early voted). This trend has continued in recent statewide elections – namely the 2019 primary (28%/386,129 early voted) and runoff (33%/503,620 early voted).
So does this record first day turnout point to a record November turnout? JMC is of the opinion that a heavy early voting turnout does incrementally benefit overall turnout, even though some of the increase in early voting turnout is a “front loading” of Election Day turnout.
Mailing it in
Historically, the mail in component of early voting has been an insubstantial component of the total vote cast before Election Day. That changed this year both for the July primary and August runoff, as the pandemic has changed people’s voting habits, and mail in voting has become the clear beneficiary. More specifically, in major statewide election cycles between 2008-2019, on average, 15% of the total vote cast before Election Day was by mail, while the other 85% was in person early voting.
That dramatically changed this year: in the July primary, 39% of the total vote was cast before Election Day, and 51% of that was in person early vote (49% was mail). In the August runoff, a similar 39% of the total vote was cast before Election Day, but that August vote was (for the first time ever) 38% in person early vote/62% mail. And while the first day of early voting for the November election was 54% mail, that was the result of an accumulation of several weeks of returned mail. Since then, that 54% has steadily dropped, and as of last night, it represented 15% of the entire pre-Election Day vote. Still, this 15%/146,284 mail in vote is impressive when you realize that at a similar point in time in 2016, 9%/46,681 of the early vote was mail. And in 2016, 16,335 mail in ballots came in after the conclusion of in person early voting – JMC is projecting that 40,960 more mail in ballots will continue to come in over the next few days.
JMC’s projections of early voting volume and overall turnout – are ONE MILLION early votes possible?
Projecting turnout is a constantly moving target throughout early voting week (which for the November 2020 elections is “early voting 10 days”), but since early voting has been in existence in Louisiana for more than a decade, JMC has established (and continuously refined) benchmarks that can be used to project early voting and/or final turnout, even considering that his predictive model got slightly more complex in 2017 with mail in ballots’ starting to be automatically being mailed out to those 65 years old or over. An extra layer of complexity was added this year, with the almost overnight shift to mail in voting that occurred for both the July/August 2020 elections. That shift was accompanied by an expansion of the number of days (and hours/day) that early voting is available for Louisiana voters.
So when you consider the following: (1) the “spike” in mail in ballots that artificially inflated the first day numbers, (2) the organic level of interest in mail in voting that was simply not present prior to 2020, (3) the fact that there was sustained heavy turnout throughout the in person early voting period, and (4) the fact that mail in ballots can still come in for another week, JMC has the following turnout projections – projections which, by the way, make attaining 1 million early votes a possibility:
- Early voting as a percentage of the final vote will likely go from 26% (in 2016) to 45% of the total this year;
- Projected early + absentee/mail vote: 1005K
- Projected turnout volume: 2234K
- Projected turnout percentage: 73%
Why does early voting matter? When the Legislature essentially established “no fault” early voting more than a decade ago, you now have a noticeable constituency of people who prefer the convenience of early voting, and this constituency has for twelve times in a row (the 2015 primary, 2015 runoff, 2016 Presidential elections, December 2016 runoff, October 2017 primary, November 2017 runoff, November 2018 primary, December 2018 runoff, October 2019 primary, 2019 runoff, 2020 primary, and 2020 runoff) exceeded 20%. A politician would be foolish to ignore this many “up front” voters, especially in a closely contested race. Also, too, early voting numbers are the first ones that are typically reported after polls have closed at 8 PM, although given the heavy expected volume of mail in voting this year, that early reporting may or may not happen.