WASHINGTON — With less than three weeks to go before Nov. 3, more than 14 million Americans have voted in the fall election, reflecting an extraordinary level of participation despite barriers erected by the coronavirus pandemic — and setting a trajectory that could result in the majority of voters casting ballots before Election Day for the first time in U.S. history.
In Georgia this week, voters waited as long as 11 hours to cast their ballots on the first day of early voting. In North Carolina, nearly 1 in 5 of roughly 500,000 who have returned mail ballots did not vote in the last presidential election. In Michigan, more than 1 million people — roughly one-fourth of total turnout in 2016 — have voted.
The picture is so stark that election officials across the country are reporting record early turnout, much of it in person, meaning that more results could be available on election night than previously thought.
Much of the early voting appears to be driven by heightened enthusiasm among Democrats. Of the roughly 3.5 million voters who have cast ballots in six states that provide partisan breakdowns, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by roughly 2 to 1, according to a Washington Post analysis of data in Florida, Kentucky, Iowa, Maine, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
Those who have voted include disproportionate numbers of Black voters and women, according to state data — groups that favor former Vice President Joe Biden over President Donald Trump in recent polls.
Dozens of voters who have shown up on their states’ first day of early voting over the past several weeks have described a desire to cast their ballots at the first possible moment as a statement against the president.
“Last night felt like Christmas Eve,” said Tony Lewis, 39, who showed up at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville on Tuesday as polls opened at 8:30 a.m. for the first day of in-person voting. “I just wanted to get out and be one of the first ones to cast my vote to hopefully end the insanity we are living in under the current administration.”
Republicans say the heavy turnout shows that Democratic votes are coming in earlier but not necessarily in higher numbers in the end. The Trump campaign and other Republicans say that Biden might win the early vote, but that the president will catch up on Election Day among supporters who do not trust mail balloting.
“For months, Democrats have pinned all their hopes on mail ballots, irresponsibly scared voters away from the polls and cannibalized their Election Day voters in favor of vote by mail,” said Trump campaign spokeswoman Thea McDonald. “Republicans will show up in person on Election Day and reelect President Trump.”
While half of likely voters said they planned to vote early, a sharp partisan divide emerges over when people say they will cast their ballots, according to a Post-ABC poll conducted Oct. 6 through 9.
Sixty-four percent of likely voters supporting Biden said they planned to vote early. Among likely voters supporting Trump, 61% planned to vote on Election Day.
Republicans are also turning out early. In Ohio, where early voting began last week, strong support for Trump was evident through the state’s Appalachian region.
“He is a president that is for the people, and he is not a politician, which is what we need,” said retiree Jerry Morkassel, 79, of Pike County, Ohio. “You sure as hell know where he stands.”
Election administrators have been preparing for months for a surge in mail voting among Americans trying to avoid coronavirus infection at the polls. And operatives in both major political parties expected the early vote to favor Biden, in part because Trump’s repeated attacks on the integrity of mail voting have resonated more deeply with his own supporters, who are eschewing mail ballots to an extent that has alarmed GOP operatives.
Even so, the numbers trickling in as early voting begins in state after state offer a more dramatic picture than what many expected.
The number of people who have voted this year is equivalent to about 10% of the 2016 electorate, according to Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida who tracks early and mail-in voting on his website, the United States Elections Project. More than 20 states are set to offer early voting in the coming weeks, including North Carolina beginning Thursday.
Some voters who had planned to vote by mail are showing up in person to avoid delays with the U.S. Postal Service. Many others are so determined to vote — and be seen doing it at the first available chance — that they are enduring hourslong waits despite the other voting options.
“Four years of Donald Trump is enough for me,” said Victor Tellesco, a 50-year-old from the Phoenix suburbs who voted for the first time in his life on Arizona’s first day of early voting last week. Tellesco, a registered Democrat, had requested and received a mail ballot, but he decided not to wait.
“Every time I see him on TV, my blood pressure goes up,” he said. “It just made me feel like I needed to vote this year. I don’t know why I’ve never voted before. But this year, it feels like I needed to vote.”
While polls show that Democrats are more likely to vote by mail this year, there are signs that many are abandoning those plans and showing up in person instead. That trend was apparent this week in Fulton County, Ga., where it helped drive long lines at early voting centers, officials said.
“We’re getting a lot of reports of people canceling their ballots by mail,” said Rick Barron, the elections chief in Fulton County, home of downtown Atlanta.
McDonald, the political scientist, said the likely Democratic lean of the early vote is undeniable, but it is early in the election.
Still, the early numbers are proving to be larger than even Democrats predicted. Three out of four voters in Pennsylvania who have returned their ballots, for instance, are registered Democrats. In increasingly Democratic Virginia, where early voting began in September with hourslong lines in Washington suburbs, nearly 1.7 million voters had cast ballots by Wednesday, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project — more than triple the number who voted early or by mail overall in 2016. In Kentucky, nearly 70% of mail ballots cast have come from registered Democrats.
In Georgia, so many people were determined to vote in person at the first chance of early voting Monday that they withstood lines that lasted throughout the day. A record 242,000 people voted in the first two days.
“I really wanted to make sure that my voice was heard and that my vote was counted,” said Everlean Rutherford, 39, a contracting officer for the federal government who stood in line for 10 hours Monday at the Cobb County election headquarters in Marietta. “I want to see a change in this country. I have three Black sons, young sons. We need to make sure that the world that we leave for our children is a better world.”
Like Rutherford, nearly 40% of those who voted Monday in Georgia were Black, and 56% were women, according to state election data. Two years ago, when Democrat Stacey Abrams, who is Black, narrowly lost the race for Georgia governor, 34% of the electorate was Black, according to U.S. census data. In that election, the share of women who voted was 56%, the same as the proportion of early voters now.
“Are you seeing the same thing I’m seeing?” asked one Republican strategist in Georgia, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly, when shown the numbers. “This state is blue.”
Next came Texas, where early in-person voting began Tuesday. In Harris County, home of the state’s largest city, Houston, and a sizable Black population, more than 128,000 voters cast ballots in person, setting a county turnout record. The county, which voted against Trump in 2016 by more than 12 points, matched roughly 10% of its entire turnout four years ago on its first day of early voting.
In Travis County, home to largely Democratic Austin, county clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said she expects about 650,000 of the county’s eligible 850,000 voters to cast ballots before Election Day.
In Chattanooga, Tenn., the moon was still in the sky Wednesday morning as voters began to line up around the parking lot of the Hamilton County Election Commission for the state’s first day of early voting.
By the time doors opened at 8 a.m., cars jammed the muddy grass allotments around the parking lot, and police had been dispatched to help coordinate traffic.
Saundra Adams, 71, ate the BLT sandwich she had packed for breakfast and watched the sun rise as the line grew longer behind her.
“I’ve planned for weeks, and I plan to wait however long it takes,” said Adams, who cast her vote for Biden.
Officials expect early in-person voting to begin Thursday in North Carolina with the same kind of enthusiasm seen in Texas and Georgia this week. They have logged the same kind of enthusiasm among absentee voters. For instance, 1 in 5 who have already voted by mail in this election did not vote in 2016 — a key indicator of enthusiasm, several Democratic strategists said. More than 1 in 4 newly registered voters have already cast their ballots.
Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist for two statewide candidates in North Carolina this year — Gov. Roy Cooper and Senate contender Cal Cunningham — acknowledged that about 80% of those who had voted as of this week are people who traditionally vote early in person or on Election Day.
“We are cannibalizing, yes,” he said. “But when you have one-fifth that are new to the process, that tells you that people are motivated to vote like they haven’t been in a very long time. And that is a very good thing for Democrats.”
On the other hand, Democrats say there is risk in the Trump strategy of depending on Election Day turnout for a victory, when such unforeseen forces as the weather or a surge in coronavirus infections — not to mention the president’s standing among voters — could thwart enthusiasm on Nov. 3.
“There’s a real advantage to locking up the votes and knowing that you have them,” said Becca Siegel, the Biden campaign’s chief analytics officer, who noted that the more voters cast ballots ahead of Nov. 3, the more the campaign can focus its attention on those still making up their minds.
One point of uncertainty for Democrats is the relatively low turnout among young voters so far. In Georgia, less than 9% of those who turned out Monday were between the ages of 18 and 29, according to data from the office of Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican.
While both campaigns agree that young voters lean heavily Democratic, potentially enhancing Biden’s advantage, there is also peril in these voters waiting to vote. Studies have shown that they are more likely to have their mail ballots rejected than other age groups.
Meanwhile, the heavy in-person turnout suggests that there could be more results available in key states on election night than had been anticipated.
Election experts and administrators have spent months trying to lower expectations about what will be known the night of Nov. 3 because of the wide embrace of mail ballots, which take longer to process and tabulate. And Americans appear to have absorbed that message, with half of registered voters confident that Americans will know the result of the presidential election within a “day or two” of Nov. 3, including nearly equal shares of Biden and Trump supporters, according to a Pew Research Center survey released Wednesday.
Much depends on whether and where the race is close, and what the time frame is in those states for counting and posting results. If the presidential race boils down to Pennsylvania, for instance, there is little chance a result will be available on Nov. 3, since tabulation of mail ballots may not begin until that morning, and ballots may arrive as late as Nov. 6. Election officers in Philadelphia were still counting mail ballots two weeks after the state’s June primary.
Yet some potentially pivotal results are expected shortly after polls close, according to a Washington Post analysis of early vote totals and state rules governing mail balloting. Thanks to surges in early and absentee voting, looser rules for processing and counting mail ballots, and active preparation by election officials, voters in critical states such as Florida and North Carolina can expect to see advanced results on election night, if everything goes to plan.
In North Carolina, state officials plan to release preliminary returns from early in-person and mail voting shortly after polls close on Nov. 3, at 7:30 p.m. Eastern time. State officials in Florida expect to release similar returns at 8 p.m. and in Arizona two hours after that.
Combined, those three states will deliver 55 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.
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The Washington Post’s Ted Mellnik, Emily Guskin, Scott Clement, Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Michael Scherer in Washington; Jeremy Duda in Phoenix; Brittney Martin in Houston; Josh Wood in Louisville, Ky.; Haisten Willis in Marietta, Ga.; Kevin Williams in Waverly, Ohio; and Kate Harrison Belz in Chattanooga, Tenn., contributed to this report.