Story at a glance
- The proportion of voters who cast ballots early has been rising for decades as states have expanded vote-by-mail programs and opened polls earlier.
- This year’s early-vote total is expected to pass the tally in the last midterm election in 2018.
- Early voting was not seen as an especially partisan issue until 2020, when former President Trump politicized it. Since then, the parties have diverged on voting methods.
Early voting had a momentum all its own before 2020, election scholars say, when the pandemic made it the norm and former President Trump made it political.
In the pre-pandemic 2016 and 2018 elections, census data shows, barely three-fifths of American voters cast ballots in the polls on Election Day. Over the past three decades, early voters have waged a quiet revolution, completing ballots over coffee at the kitchen table or at polling places open on Halloween.
Early voting wasn’t a particularly partisan issue, electoral experts say, until Trump made it one. As the COVID-19 pandemic descended, most of the nation opted to vote early, a strategy promoted to reduce crowds and viral exposure on Election Day. Trump responded to the push with quotes and tweets about potential fraud, though he himself voted by mail in the 2020 primaries. Much of his party lined up behind him.
But results from the 2022 midterms suggest early voting is here to stay. The United States Elections Project and other analysts expect the early vote total in 2022 to surpass the figure for 2018, the last midterm contest.
“I think that after all is said and done, we’re probably looking at 45 percent of the vote or so that was cast before the election,” said Michael McDonald, a political scientist and election specialist at the University of Florida. “Early voting has been expanding.”
Eight states, including the Republican stronghold of Utah and swing states Nevada and Colorado, now conduct general elections entirely by mail, joined by deep-red counties in Nebraska and North Dakota. “All-mail” states typically offer voters the option to cast ballots in person if they prefer.
California pioneered early voting in 1978 with a law that allowed voters to request absentee ballots for any reason, including sheer convenience. In prior years, as a rule, voters had to schlep to the polls unless they were out of town or grievously ill.
“We had a small amount of voting by mail,” said John Fortier, a senior fellow and election specialist at the American Enterprise Institute who writes columns for The Hill. “It was less than 5 percent in most states.”
In the decades since, 34 other states and the District of Columbia have enacted “no-excuse” absentee voting. The share of ballots cast by mail reached 10 percent in the 2000 presidential election and 20 percent in 2014, according to census data.
Oregon took the next logical step in 1998, issuing all ballots by mail. Washington followed in 2011, Colorado in 2013. The current list of all-mail states includes California, Hawaii, Nevada, Utah and Vermont.
Voting by mail “makes a lot of sense for running elections out in the West,” McDonald said, to spare voters a long drive to the polls.
The notion of opening polls before Election Day caught on more slowly. According to census data, the share of voters casting early ballots in person didn’t reach double digits until 2008. Forty-six states and the District now allow early in-person voting.
That is not to say early voting is new. “That’s how we ran elections for the first fifty years or so,” in the decades after the nation’s founding, McDonald said. “We allowed people to vote over multiple days.” Congress set a uniform election day in 1845.
The sanctity of the polling place is another modern conceit. Through much of the 19th century, “you could mark your own ballot,” Fortier said. “Parties could give you a ballot. People could see you put your color-coded ballot in a glass jar.” A series of reforms late in the century established the modern system of casting a standardized ballot that no one else could see.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic chaos of 2020, neither political party strongly favored one system of voting over another. Indeed, Florida Republicans reap much of the credit for expanding early voting in the last decade.
“After the 2012 election, Florida was criticized for having long lines,” McDonald said. “Republicans in state government decided that the best way to address the long lines was to try to get people to vote early. They actually made mail balloting easier.”
In 2020, the pandemic prompted emergency measures across the nation to allow balloting by mail and to thin the ranks at the polls. Trump pushed back, leveraging his presidential platform to seed doubt about mailed ballots.
“There is no way you can go through a mail-in vote without massive cheating,” Trump falsely asserted in one interview.
In that election and in the 2022 midterms, Democrats pushed for balloting by mail as a matter of electoral convenience. Republicans largely embraced Trump’s specious narrative that mailed ballots inspired fraud.
“Broadly speaking, Democrats are for issues of access, and Republicans are more for issues of integrity,” Fortier said.
Voting by mail does indeed increase access, researchers say, raising turnout rates by anywhere from 2 percentage points to 7 or 8 points.
In Nebraska, for example, turnout on Tuesday reached 68 percent in 11 counties with all-mail voting, compared to 53 percent for the state as a whole, according to the National Vote at Home Institute.
Studies have also found fraud to be more common in ballots cast by mail. Yet, the rate of malfeasance is infinitesimal. An investigative analysis of vote-by-mail fraud from 2000 to 2012 found fewer than 500 cases among billions of votes.
“I think the only thing about vote-by-mail that scares some people, you’re relying on the Post Office,” said Don Palmer, a former Florida elections chief who serves on the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. “And so this is where drop boxes came about.”
Secure drop boxes allow voters, in effect, to mail their ballots without using the mail. But some Republicans have stigmatized drop boxes as insecure, leading to overzealous attempts at drop-box “watching” that verge on voter intimidation.
Some red states moved to tighten election laws after 2020. A new Florida law requires voters to re-register for mail ballots more frequently and tightens rules on handling another voter’s ballot, among other restrictions.
Republican leaders also united around the idea that early voting is fine, even encouraged, for those who vote in person.
Between Democrats voting by mail and Republicans voting in person, McDonald said, Floridians voted early in copious numbers this year.
“The Election Day turnout came in much lower in places like Florida and Georgia,” he said, “and that’s because Republicans were voting early.”
Republican voters view mailed ballots somewhat differently out West, where dozens of miles can separate voter from polling place. Election officials fielded few complaints about all-mail elections in western states until Trump opined against them.
“I enjoy the convenience of mail-in voting,” said Carson Jorgensen, chairman of the Republican Party in Utah. “I think you get good turnout. Every town at city hall has a drop box, and the counties pick it up on election night.”
McDonald, the election scholar, believes all-mail voting “actually benefits Republicans,” simply by making it easier for likely voters to vote.
In any case, Utah isn’t likely to abandon voting by mail, although Jorgensen would like to see a few changes to make the system more secure.
“Vote. I don’t care how you do it,” Jorgensen said. “That was the message we sent, and our turnout this year was great.”