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Early voting hints at huge turnout

More than 4.3 million Americans have already cast their ballots in the midterm elections, and early signs point to a huge increase in turnout from the last midterm elections in 2014, when overall voter participation hit a 70-year low.

The robust turnout in the first days of early voting in some states dovetails with other indications that voter enthusiasm is higher this year than in previous years. More voters showed up to cast ballots in party primaries than in years past, and polls show more voters say they are enthusiastic about or closely following news about the election than in prior contests.

“All signs point to a higher turnout election,” said Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida who closely tracks early vote tallies. “Where we can make comparisons, so far the numbers are up from 2014. Which is not a surprise because 2014 was an exceptionally low turnout election.”

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Nearly 26 million ballots have been requested or mailed to voters around the country, according to McDonald’s tally. That’s more than the approximately 25 million voters who cast a ballot early in the 2014 midterms, either by mail or in person. Millions more will vote in person when early voting locations open in their areas.

Already, more than 800,000 Florida residents have voted in competitive races for governor and a U.S. Senate seat. Nearly half a million Californians have cast their ballot. So have more than 200,000 people in Tennessee and Arizona. More than 100,000 ballots have been submitted in Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

McDonald estimated that midterm turnout could be as high as 50 percent of the voting-eligible population, a peak last reached in the 1966 midterm elections.

Though most states have only just begun to open their early voting locations, there are indications that younger voters and first-time voters are showing up in higher proportions than in previous years.

In most states, infrequent and new voters are making up 15 to 20 percent of the electorate so far, according to an analysis by TargetSmart Communications, a Democratic data analytics firm.

“The conventional wisdom is that the early vote and the absentee vote is skewed toward people who are going to vote anyway,” said Tom Bonier, the CEO of TargetSmart.

Both Democratic and Republican data experts have built databases that allow them to identify exactly who has voted. That allows both sides to identify early trends, and to make adjustments based on those trends to bolster participation in places where turnout is lagging.

Information about those who have already cast their ballots also gives campaigns a chance to hone their pitches to a smaller universe of voters, by removing those who have already voted from contact lists.

“You can take off from voter contact all the people who already voted. No sense in trying to turn out people who already did,” said David Carney, the chief strategist for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) reelection campaign. “Every night we’ll take people who have already voted off the door-knock list. It’s a more efficient use of your time.”

By the weekend before this year’s election, Carney said, he expects about half of the voters in Abbott’s targeted universe to have already voted.

Early statistics in Georgia show African-American voters are showing up at disproportionately high rates. Of the more than 300,000 Georgia residents who have voted early, about 30 percent are black, a higher rate than the 2014 figures.

A similar increase in black turnout has not occurred yet in North Carolina or South Carolina, an indication that Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams (D) may be turning out more of her core base than Democrats in other states.

“Her campaign has been encouraging her voters to vote early,” McDonald said.

Voters in most states can cast a ballot days, weeks or even more than a month before Election Day. Most states open a limited number of in-person voting locations in the weeks leading up to an election, and at least some voters in every state can request and submit their ballots by mail.

The number of voters who take advantage of the chance to vote early grows virtually every year, experts said. In most places, Republicans tend to vote by mail, while Democrats tend to prefer showing up in person at early vote centers.

“It used to be Republicans hated early voting. They thought their votes wouldn’t be counted, they wanted to vote on Election Day,” Carney said. “Now Republicans love early voting, because they realize they’re not destroying my vote, it actually counts, I can do it on my way to do an errand, I don’t have to wait in line, I can find a parking space.”

But access to early voting varies widely by state. 

Three states — Washington, Oregon and Colorado — now conduct their elections entirely by mail, meaning every voter receives their ballots long before the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Other states, including California, operate all-mail elections in most but not all of their counties.

Voters under the age of 65 in Texas or 60 in Michigan must give a reason for using absentee ballots, such as an out-of-town trip or an illness.

Abbott’s campaign encouraged those over 65 to sign up for an absentee ballot with a mailing from Nolan Ryan, the Texas Rangers hall-of-fame pitcher.

Abbott’s campaign encouraged those over 65 to sign up for an absentee ballot with a mailing from Nolan Ryan, the Texas Rangers hall-of-fame pitcher.

Northeastern states tend to have far more restrictive election laws than Western states.

McDonald said those who vote the moment the doors open tend to be the hardened partisans who plan to vote a straight ticket for one side or the other. Those who wait until just days before Election Day tend to be independents who are still trying to decide which side they favor.

“Right when we get to that last week, it’s not Democrats or Republicans who vote more, it’s the unaffiliateds, and they tend to be younger people,” he said. “As we’re seeing right now, the electorate is skewing older, but that’s not an indication that younger people aren’t going to turn out to vote.”

--This report was updated on Oct. 23 at 10:05 a.m.