Avoid the lines and vote early
This is it: We have entered voting season. More than three weeks remain until Election Day, but as of Sunday evening about 654,407 people had cast their votes nationwide and millions more had requested absentee ballots. The two states that have seen the most action for now are Iowa and Florida, which are arguably hosting the country's hottest senatorial and gubernatorial race. And things will pick-up very quickly: States like Colorado and Oregon that have implemented an all-mail voting system are preparing to send out ballots to all voters, and in-person voting will soon get underway in other crucial 2014 states like Georgia.
It's important not to read too much into the early voting statistics: It can be hard to gauge whether these are voters who would have voted anyway or whether a party has managed to expand the voting universe and an early edge for a party can quickly dissipate. More importantly, the numbers by themselves may be misleading absent an awareness of historical precedents or organizational factors. As long as we proceed cautiously though, these numbers can be very instructive (and fun). In fact, some fascinating state-specific trends have emerged, so let's look at them one by one after the fold.
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If you can vote early, do it! And then focus on getting friends and family to do the same! Now follow me below the fold for more on state-specific trends in early voting.
So far 406,275 people have already voted in the Sunshine State—already 7.4 percent of the total electorate in the last midterms—and nearly 2.5 million Floridians have requested a ballot.
Of those, 48.6 of ballots have been cast by Republicans so far, while only 34 percent have been cast by Democrats—a seemingly large advantage for Republicans, but one that is less impressive when we consider that Florida Republicans have historically enjoyed a big advantage in mail voting as Democrats have privileged in-person voting. In fact, Democrats faced a larger deficit of 21 percentage points among mail ballots in 2010. That said, the Obama campaign made a major push to get its supporters to vote by mail rather than wait for in-person voting. That may make comparisons to 2010 fruitless; and the Rick Scott campaign points out that Republicans led returned ballots at this point of the cycle by just 2.4 percentage points in 2012. Yet here is a complicating factor: Florida's big Democratic counties (Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach) sent absentee ballots out later than their red counterparts, so many Democratic voters who requested absentee ballots have not yet had an opportunity to return them. This makes sense of the fact that the Republican advantage among voters who have requested a ballot is a much more modest 3 percent (42 to 38.9).
Here is what we will have to track in Florida: A new state law requires that all voters who requested an absentee ballot in the previous election be automatically sent one again. That means that hundreds of thousands of voters who do not traditionally vote in midterms will automatically receive an absentee ballot in the mail without having to take any action—a situation that could boost Democrats given that voters who favor them are more likely to sit out non-presidential elections. But will these Floridians return this ballot? Can Democrats get voters who tend to skip midterms to cast a ballot now that they have received one in the mail? We likely won't know the answer to this question for a while, but the answer will go a long way to determining Charlie Crist's chances.
No state has attracted as much attention from early voting watchers for now, and with good reason: No other state has voted as much. As of Monday morning, 130,194 ballots had been returned. That's more than 11 percent of the total electorate 2010 electorate.
Iowa Democrats have long enjoyed an advantage in mail-voting, so it was no surprise that they are requesting and returning far more ballots than registered Republicans. But the GOP has substantially picked-up its efforts over the past week; Republicans had a 2 to 1 edge among the new ballots requests that were added to the state's report on Monday morning, for instance. Now 43.4 percent of the absentee ballot requests have come from registered Democrats, 37 from registered Republicans—a lead that's actually smaller than at the equivalent point of the 2010 cycle. (Democrats enjoyed a 48-36 advantage with as many days remaining before the 2010 election, and a 45-37 advantage on the day the universe of absentee voters reached its current size.) Democrats enjoy a slightly larger advantage among ballots that have actually been returned: 46 percent to 38 percent.
Two questions loom large as we read these numbers: (1) The growth in the number of ballot requests by independent voters between 2010 and today is far greater than the growth among Democrats or Republicans. Who are these independents voting for? (2) Far more voters have cast their ballots by this point of the cycle than they did in 2010. Does this growth correspond to meaningful expansion of the electorate, or is it just about voters who would cast their ballot anyway choosing to do so a bit earlier?
Iowa's early voting reports don't help answer these questions. The Des Moines Register's Senate poll released Saturday did hint at both, though remember that this is just one poll and that the sample of early voters contained only about 150 voters—hardly enough to draw any meaningful conclusions. (1) Respondents who had already voted reported having cast their ballot for Democrat Bruce Braley 56 to 38 percent. Since registered Democrats only outpaced registered Republicans by 8 points among already-returns ballots, that would signal a good performance by Braley among independents if other polls find similar results. (2) The Des Moines Register poll also found that Democrats were "rounding up ballots from Iowans who would not otherwise have voted." The article does not specify what findings corroborate this analysis; it may mean that some of the respondents who indicated having already voted would not have made it past the likely voter screen otherwise.
The Senate race here is in total flux, with questions swirling as to whether either Democratic nominee Rick Weiland or independent candidate Larry Pressler can make a move and overtake longtime favorite Mike Rounds, the GOP nominee. The DSCC and the NRSC just rushed into the state with their first expenditures, but the clock has already started ticking: 8,445 votes had already been cast as of Sunday evening, which represents 2.7 percent of the total 2010 electorate. The number could be even larger by the time most voters are exposed to the national parties' advertising, let alone by the time the race gains any clarity. If either Weiland or Pressler start to thrive at the other's expense in the coming weeks, those thousands of already-cast votes could contribute to blunting their momentum.
North Carolina Republicans have historically done well in mail voting. (In 2010, they cast 44 percent versus just 35 percent for Democrats.) But for now registered Democrats have requested slightly more absentee ballots, and they've also returned more ballots.
What's promising to Democrats: A large share of the absentee ballot requests has come from voters who did not cast a ballot in 2010 (41 percent, to be exact)—and these new voters are more Democratic than the state's usual mail-voting population: As of Sunday night, registered Democrats had a 7 percentage point edge among those who requested an absentee ballot this year but who had not voted at all in 2010. (That compares to a 4 percentage edge for the GOP among voters who had also voted in 2010.) This skew is not just due to young voters who lean leftward because the Democratic edge is larger among new voters above the age of 23. This may be a early sign of an effective Democratic turnout operation, as it suggests that the surprise advantage registered Democrats have grabbed so far this year is fueled by the addition of new voters, and not just by a shift in how the usual electorate prefers to vote. This set of numbers will be among the most interesting to track in the coming weeks.
Omaha may represent Democrats' best opportunity to crow about their early voting operation. In Douglas County, about 16,000 voters have already picked-up a ballot, and 65 percent have come for registered Democrats versus just 21 percent for registered Republicans. This is atypical: Douglas County Republicans actually cast more early votes during the last midterms, and Democrats barely edged them in 2012. Neighboring Sarpy County, which Mitt Romney won 63-35, is seeing a similar dynamic: Here too registered Democrats enjoy a 62 percent to 25 percent lead. Nebraska's 2nd congressional district, based around Omaha, is one of Democrats' pick-up opportunities.
Thousands of ballots have also been cast in North Dakota, Virginia, Minnesota and Montana, but these states do not release demographic or partisan information about those who have already voted.