Updated at 10:35 a.m. ET Tuesday
With one week still remaining until Election Day, Americans have already cast a record-breaking 66 million early ballots, putting the 2020 election on track for historic levels of voter turnout.
That’s some 19 million more pre-election votes than were cast in the 2016 election, according to the U.S. Elections Project, a turnout-tracking database run by University of Florida professor Michael McDonald.
McDonald calculates that nationally, voters have cast more than 48% of the total votes counted in the 2016 election.
“We continue to pile on votes at a record pace. We’ve already passed any raw number of early votes in any prior election in U.S. history,” McDonald told NPR on Monday.
“It’s good news, because we were very much concerned about how it would be possible to conduct an election during a pandemic,” he said, citing concerns that mail-in ballots would be returned by voters en masse at the conclusion of the early voting period, overwhelming election officials. “Instead, what appears to be happening is people are voting earlier and spreading out the workload for election officials.”
In 2019, McDonald predicted that 150 million people would vote in 2020’s general election, which would be a turnout rate of about 65% — the highest since 1908.
But he’s going back to the drawing board.
“I have increasingly been confident that 150 [million] is probably a lowball estimate,” he said Monday. “I think by the end of the week I’ll be upping that forecast.”
Texas leads the way
Some states are quickly approaching their 2016 vote totals.
In Texas, for example, 7.8 million early votes had been cast as of Tuesday morning, marking 87% of the state’s total votes in 2016.
Montana, North Carolina, Florida and Georgia have also reached 67% or more of their 2016 vote totals.
McDonald cites Washington state as an example of the change in voter behavior this year since the state ran mostly all mail-in elections in both 2016 and 2020 under the same rules. As of Sunday, the state reports more than 2 million mail-in ballots have been returned, nearly three times the return rate in 2016.
Roberto Rodriguez, assistant deputy supervisor of elections in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, says 42% of voters there have already cast their ballots.
“Normally in a presidential election, we have anywhere from 68% to 73% turnout,” Rodriguez told NPR Monday. “We’re expecting 80% turnout this year based on the voting numbers that have come in.”
He said more than 266,000 people had voted at an early voting site in person and more than 390,000 had voted by mail, as of Sunday night. Miami-Dade County has more than 1.5 million active registered voters.
Caution in interpreting partisan splits
Among states that are reporting data, voters have requested 88 million mail ballots, according to McDonald, and roughly 44 million ballots have been returned by mail.
Democrats currently hold a roughly 2-to-1 advantage in returned mail-in ballots in states with party registration.
But McDonald is quick to caution that early numbers don’t paint the full picture.
“Usually the story for a typical election in recent years has been that the early vote is Democratic and the Election Day vote is Republican,” he said. “And it looks as though we’re going to have the same story this year, and we’re going to have to wait to see what happens with that Election Day vote before we can really say what’s going to happen.”
But 2020 has brought a shift in the way in which people are voting early.
“Typically, when we talk about early voting, we’re talking about Democrats voting in person early and Republicans voting by mail,” McDonald said. “This election, those roles are reversed. But when you look at the overall electorate, there are many more people voting by mail than in person early in most states.”
The shift could be at least in part due to President Trump’s consistent false claims that voting by mail leads to widespread fraud, whereas Joe Biden’s campaign has been aggressive in urging supporters to vote early, whether in person or by mail.
Strategically, it’s helpful for campaigns to have voters cast their ballots early so they can use campaign resources more efficiently then to target less-motivated voters.
A surge in young voters
People ages 18 to 29 are turning out to vote early in a big way.
According to data from the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, a research center at Tufts University, the numbers of young people voting early have skyrocketed, particularly in states that will be critical for Biden and Trump to win, such as Michigan, Florida and North Carolina.
As of Oct. 21, 257,720 young voters in Florida had voted, according to CIRCLE. That’s nearly 214,000 more than had voted at that time in 2016.
In Texas, almost 500,000 18- to 29-year-olds had cast their ballots by Oct. 21. However, there isn’t data from 2016 with which to compare youth turnout.
Young people could wield significant political power: Millennials and some members of Generation Z make up 37% of eligible voters, roughly the same share of the electorate that baby boomers and older voters (“pre-boomers”) make up, according to census data analyzed by the Brookings Institution.
For decades, youth voters have showed up to the polls at relatively low rates, a statistic voter education groups have been working to change this year.
Long lines remain
As early voting began, the pent-up voting interest showed as long lines formed in states such as Georgia and Texas, with some voters waiting for hours.
Election officials had warned that some in-person voting locations would face longer lines as some jurisdictions have had to consolidate polling places and adjust logistics to accommodate social distancing during the pandemic.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on long voting wait times: “Just because it’s happening in a blue state — doesn’t mean that it’s not voter suppression.” pic.twitter.com/EOwT4Xxcfe
— The Hill (@thehill) October 26, 2020
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., criticized the long lines she experienced while voting Sunday in the Bronx.
“There is no place in the United States of America where two-, three-, four-hour waits to vote is acceptable and just because it’s happening in a blue state doesn’t mean it’s not voter suppression,” she said.
“If this was happening in a swing state, there would be national coverage.”