PHILADELPHIA — An unnerved yet energized America is voting with an urgency never seen before in the approach to a presidential election, as a record 90 million people have cast ballots despite an array of challenges: a pandemic, postal delays, long lines and court rulings that have tested faith in the country’s electoral system.
In Texas and Hawaii, turnout has already exceeded the total vote from 2016, with days left for absentee ballots to be returned. Ten other states, including major battlegrounds like Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Arizona and Nevada, have surpassed 80% of the turnout from the last presidential election. Overall, the early turnout has set the country on course to surpass 150 million votes for the first time in history.
The impact of this huge surge in turnout is one of the most unpredictable facets of the election, as strategists in both parties parse early returns for signs of any advantage. Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, is counting on a strong early vote to help him flip states like Florida and Arizona that President Donald Trump carried in 2016. But Republicans are banking on their voters to turn out in bigger numbers on Election Day and deliver battleground wins, as they did in key states in 2016.
Trump, campaigning on Saturday in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, predicted a race that will be undecided on Election Day with chaos to come. “We’re going to be waiting,” said Trump, who has spent months disparaging voting by mail. “Nov. 3 is going to come and go, and we’re not going to know. And you’re going to have bedlam in our country.”
Though Democrats have maintained an edge in early turnout in nearly every state that has seen record participation, Republicans have been closing the gap. In Florida, for example, 40% of the ballots returned came from registered Democrats, and 37.9% from registered Republicans, and in heavily Democratic Miami-Dade County, registered Republicans are turning out at a slightly higher percentage than Democrats. Included in those returns are millions of ballots marked no party affiliation, with no indication whether Biden or Trump is leading.
A recent national poll by The New York Times and Siena College found that Republicans were more likely to vote on Election Day than to vote early, while Democrats showed a preference for voting early. Polls in Georgia, Iowa and other battleground states showed a similar trend.
As the nation enters one of the most consequential weeks for voting in recent years, with swaths of Americans nervous about whether their ballots will be received and counted and others determined to push through concerns about the virus to vote, officials across the country have been mounting a furious effort to shore up election systems that have been pushed to the brink. They are recruiting tens of thousands of additional poll workers, working around the clock to process ballots and keeping polling locations open late to accommodate long lines.
“I’m going to vote like my life depends on it,” Marilyn Crowder, 60, said as she waited in a line a block long at Anna B. Day School in Northwest Philadelphia this week. The school, one of 17 early voting locations open for the first time in Philadelphia, has for weeks drawn lines of voters filing down the street.
For Crowder, a cancer survivor, the pandemic was a motivating factor, as well as what she saw as attempts by Republicans to make it harder to vote. “I personally felt powerless to do anything about it, except what I’m doing now,” she said. “And now I’m making phone calls.”
Les Bignell, 59, a sewer liner from West Allis, Wisconsin, said he dropped his absentee ballot in the box at City Hall days earlier, casting a vote for Trump as he did in 2016. “I did it because of my bank account,’’ he said. “When the lockdown first happened I lost a lot of money, but I got it all back already.”
Never before in modern American politics has the electorate faced so many unknowns while so many Americans still pushed forward to cast their ballots through the mail and in person.
“The issues that are facing this country are generational,” said Michael McDonald, a professor of political science at the University of Florida. He said the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, coupled with the heightened political engagement since Trump’s election, had produced a highly energized electorate.
“We wish we could care about other things in our lives, but right now, politics matter so much, and people are engaged,” he said. Of course, non-battleground states, or states without a competitive statewide race, are unlikely to generate such intense voter interest, and early turnout can sometimes lag for reasons ranging from different start dates to disruptions from a hurricane.
But amid the swelling turnout is growing concern over the yawning gap between absentee ballots that have been requested and those that have been returned. With just days to go, 36 million ballots that were requested have either not been returned or have been rejected. Many of those ballots could still be in the mail or in processing or might have been sent to people who now plan to vote in person.
Any problems with the early vote are also likely to affect Democrats more than Republicans. In almost every state, Democrats have requested absentee ballots at a higher rate than Republicans. In Pennsylvania, nearly 2 million registered Democrats requested absentee ballots, compared with fewer than 790,000 Republicans. And while 70% of those Democratic voters have returned their ballots, roughly 590,000 ballots sent to registered Democratic voters have not yet been returned, along with 360,000 ballots sent to registered Republicans.
The process has been further disrupted by a wave of litigation that has often pitted Democrats fighting to expand access to absentee voting against Republicans seeking tighter restrictions. Lawsuits have, among other issues, disrupted ballot deadlines in key states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota, and sought to limit the use of drop boxes in Pennsylvania and Texas. Court rulings were coming as late as Thursday night, just days before the election.
For Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court left open a possibility of a future ruling on ballots that are postmarked by Election Day but arrive late, and the secretary of state told all county election officials to segregate those ballots.Worries about the U.S. Postal Service have added to the anxiety. The agency said in a filing that staffing issues resulting from the pandemic were causing problems in some facilities, including some in central Pennsylvania. Only 78% of employees are available, according to the filing.
John Bloom, a voter in Cumberland County, near Harrisburg, said he and roughly 30 others were planning to head to the polls on Election Day to void the ballots they had requested and vote in person after seeing suggestions on social media from local Democratic officials.
“People are very worried that our mail-in votes, which likely will contain a good portion of the county’s Democratic vote, will not get counted,” Bloom said.
Kathy Boockvar, the secretary of state in Pennsylvania, said the state was expecting a large surge of ballots to arrive in the final days. Nearly 50% of the absentee ballots during the primary were returned in the final week, including almost 175,000 on the day before the primary.
“I feel really good about where we are, but I want to leave nothing to chance, which is why we’re spending so much energy focusing on telling voters to get your ballots in,” Boockvar said. “Do not put them in the mail; drop them off in person.”
Perhaps no state has seen a greater surge than Texas, a suddenly competitive state for Biden. More than 9 million voters had cast their ballots there as of Friday, despite restrictions ordered by Gov. Greg Abbott that limited ballot drop-off locations to one per county.
Raquel Gair Sutton, a former teacher from Arlington and a Democrat, said she always casts her ballot on the first day of early voting. This year, with her husband running for mayor, she waited four and a half hours to vote, beating her previous record by about three hours.
“I was blown away,” said Sutton, whose husband, a local City Council member, has served as the election judge for their local precinct in Tarrant County. “I think it means good things for Biden, but we thought that four years ago. People are just ready for change.”
In Georgia, where public polls show the two candidates engaged in a tight race, officials expect overall turnout to increase dramatically and to exceed the 4.1 million people who voted in 2016, when the state supported Trump over Hillary Clinton by 5 percentage points.
Pointing to record turnout in absentee and early voting, Brad Raffensperger, the secretary of state, said he believed that as many as 6 million people would vote.In the first days of early voting, some Georgians endured waits of eight hours or more to cast ballots. Yet while anecdotal reports suggested heavy turnout among Black voters, Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, said it was too early to tally the percentage of votes by African Americans because thousands of absentee ballots had not been returned.
Deidre Holden, supervisor of elections in Paulding County, part of the Atlanta metropolitan area, blamed the long lines on a slowdown in a statewide computer system where votes are recorded so no one could cast two ballots.
“Because so many people, so many workers, were trying to access the system, it was like a bottleneck,” Holden said, adding that the problem had been corrected by the third day of early voting.
In Michigan, 2.6 million voters have already cast their ballots, and turnout is nearing 60% of 2016 levels. The secretary of state has committed to keeping as many polling locations open as possible on Tuesday.
But Kimberly Korona, 38, of Farmington Hills, took a day off from work to drop off her ballot for Biden earlier in October — “to save Democracy,’’ she said.In Wisconsin, another battleground state where Biden has maintained a steady single-digit lead, turnout has approached nearly 80% of the 2016 total.
“It’s history making numbers with regard to our early voting,” said Mayor Eric Genrich of Green Bay, who said that turnout in his city was at about 50% of the 2016 level. This past week, voters lined the foyer of Green Bay City Hall while waiting to cast their ballots early.
The city got a grant to upgrade its counting equipment. Still, Genrich warned of delays in tabulating the votes.
“It’s going to take longer than people are used to,” Genrich said.