Election Day is just four weeks from Tuesday, but millions of Americans will cast their ballot before then—and hundreds of thousands already have. Overall, early votes and absentee ballots accounted for roughly 36 percent of all votes cast four years ago, and there’s a good chance that that proportion will increase this year, given the growing popularity of early voting and moves in several states to expand it since the last presidential election.
With so many early or absentee voters, candidates at all levels have a limited amount of time remaining to persuade voters to support them. While federal law mandates all states allow absentees for voters with a legitimate excuse, some states still don't offer early voting or absentee ballots without an excuse, as you can see in the map at the top of this post. That means the time remaining for persuasion will vary from state to state.
And even states ostensibly in the same category have vastly different election rules and conditions. For instance, it’s easier to obtain an excuse for a mail absentee in some states than others; some states offer weeks of early voting and others just mere days; and three states—Colorado, Oregon, and Washington—even conduct their elections entirely by mail. It’s a dizzying array of alternatives, as you can see, so in this post, we’ll explore the broad contours of how and when early voting operates across the nation.
When to (early) vote
As of Oct. 12, 18 states have already started early or in-person absentee voting. The map below shows the timeline of when pre-Election Day voting starts, with darker shades of green denoting states that begin earlier.
The states in green all allow either regular early voting or in-person absentees without an excuse, while the purple states only offer absentees with a valid excuse. The states in the Upper Midwest and Great Plains generally have the longest early voting periods, while many states in the South and Northeast offer shorter periods or none at all. (Note that in several states like Wisconsin, localities can often choose to offer extended days of early voting.)
Daily Kos Elections currently rates 10 Senate races as at least somewhat competitive between the two parties. Of those states, only Illinois and Wisconsin have previously begun early voting, while Arizona and Indiana start on Oct. 12. North Carolina commences on Oct. 20 and Nevada on Oct. 22., while most of Florida will begin on Oct. 29. That leaves Missouri, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania, which only offer excused mail absentees; Senate campaigns in those three states therefore have four more weeks to persuade the lion’s share of voters.
Early voting and turnout
Just how many votes get cast early also varies by state, and as you might expect, there’s a fairly direct correlation between the availability of early voting options and the share of votes cast that way. As the map below using 2012 election data from early voting expert Michael McDonald illustrates, the states with in-person early voting or vote-by-mail typically have the highest rates of pre-Election Day votes, while those that only offer mail absentees with an excuse see the lowest.
However, there are some states that don’t fit the pattern, particularly among those that offer same-day registration, meaning voters can register to vote on Election Day. Some states like Michigan and South Carolina, which only offer absentees with an excuse, have particularly lenient absentee requirements. In those states, the proportion of votes cast early is comparable to the proportion in some of the no-excuse voting states. Michigan, despite lacking early voting, even cast twice as big a share of its votes early as did Oklahoma, which offers just a few days of in-person absentee voting.
Some states have changed their rules since the 2012 presidential election, which means that direct comparisons to turnout rates four years ago can be tricky. Here are some of the biggest changes:
What early voting information can tell us about thIS election
Daily Kos Elections recently published a very helpful primer on what early vote reporting statistics might tell us about the state of some key 2016 races before we get to Election Day. Although no state counts actual votes before then, many report the party registration or racial statistics of the voters who have cast their ballots, and that can often be a helpful tea leaf for gauging where the candidates stand.
However, no two elections are identical, and the early voting patterns can shift from year to year because the parties change their turnout strategies. Democrats dominate the early vote in some states, while Republicans do in others, particularly in states that only offer excused absentees, which the elderly typically use more.
As things currently stand, Donald Trump consistently trails Hillary Clinton in the polls by roughly 6 percent. That’s before we even have a large amount of data following his recent meltdown over bragging about sexual assault on tape, and his subsequent abandonment by many in the party. Trump’s implosion was almost perfectly timed for Clinton because it’s too late for him to be removed from the ballot, but there’s still an overwhelming amount of the early votes yet to come, according to McDonald’s tracking data of 2016 early voting numbers. Clinton has been running a campaign organized around when each state begins early voting and how important early voting is to the ultimate Democratic margin. Trump, meanwhile, has a small and disorganized ground operation.
Many undecided voters will typically wait until closer to Election Day to vote. However, Trump needs to win over not just undecideds, but current Clinton voters as well in order to have a chance to win. Not only is Trump trending in the opposite direction, his time is swiftly running out.