What early voting data can and cannot tell us
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When Democrats won the House in 2018, they did so with the help of a big turnout that produced the highest midterm voter turnout in more than 100 years.
However, half of the voting population did not participate.
This year, early voting is up in some of the key states, but when I spoke with Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist known for tracking early voting data, he predicted turnout would fall below that level in 2018.
McDonald has a new book that dissects the huge achievement of the 2020 presidential election, when nearly 67% of the eligible population voted. He has more about the book and his early voting coverage American Election Project website.
We talked about what people should take away from past elections and what he’s seeing as he tracks early voting data for the current election.
What follows is a condensed version of our longer phone conversation.
WOLF: You wrote a book about this kind of amazing democratic achievement of voting during a pandemic. What do you want people to take away from that research?
McDonald’s: We must give great credit to the election officials, the volunteers who worked at the polls and the voters themselves for participating in the highest turnout presidential election since 1900.
There was no one alive who voted in the 2020 election who voted in the last election where we had a higher turnout. It’s a really big achievement. We managed to do something that was historic under extraordinary circumstances. That is very positive news.
Unfortunately, another takeaway from the book is the relentless attacks on voting that occurred during the election stemming from rhetoric from (former President Donald) Trump, and then just filtering through this party. It is a damaged democracy, and we can see it happening in real time with the 2022 election.
WOLF: You mentioned the highest turnout in 100 years in 2020. I saw in the book that the turnout in the mid-term elections in 2018 was the highest since 1914. We also see that more and more people are questioning the integrity of the elections, but also that they are more likely to participate in the elections. What do you think about that?
McDonald’s: The last time we had exceptionally high turnout was in the late 1800s, and that period was also marked by intense polarization. We don’t have any polling data so we can’t go back and ask voters if they are polarized, but we can assume that what was happening among our elected officials in the federal government also reflected what was happening among voters. .
And so we entered a period of greater polarization, and you can point to the culprits for that. But whatever the cause, we’ve certainly gotten to the point where people actually believe it it matters who runs the government and it is really important that it is their side that leads the government.
When people understand that difference between parties and the importance that differences in policy have on their lives, they are more likely to vote.
That’s the old curse: To live in interesting times. We live in interesting times. People are very interested in politics, so they are very engaged in elections.
WOLF: U 1880s, USA had close to 80% turnout. You could argue that the higher turnout somehow signals a wake-up call for democracy.
McDonald’s: You would hope that people are engaged for altruistic reasons, that they want to be good citizens, that they weigh their options carefully, and make reasonable decisions about who to vote for.
There were people who looked back at a political science report that was done in the 1950s and lamented that there was no difference between the political parties, that we were falling apart, that we were headed for the collapse of democracy in the United States if we didn’t fix the parties.
Well, you have to be careful what you wish for because the parties are stronger in the electorate than they’ve ever been in modern times, and now people are thinking, well, maybe that’s too much.
What is the happy medium of an engaged electorate, but one that is not so fired up by partisanship that in some cases they would want to take violent action because they believe politics is so important?
WOLF: You are very well known for tracking early voting data. What can it actually tell us before election day?
McDonald’s: I first started following early voting in the 2008 elections for the organization of exit polls. They wanted to know the size of the early votes, so they could properly evaluate their polls.
And just like a lark, I posted it on the internet. A million hits later on a website I made just for fun, and I knew I had done something different and special in some way. And if you look at a lot of the data journalism that’s happening today, it’s more in the spirit of what I do, which is to take some administrative data and kind of tell a story with it.
To answer the question of where we are on early voting … what you want to do is take all the pieces of information that you can put together and try to get a picture of where we are. So I don’t think early voting alone paints a picture, just as I don’t think polling alone paints a definitive picture of where the election is going.
Surveys have errors. Early voting has its own nuances and measurement problems.
WOLF: What are some of the things you see in early voting?
McDonald’s: It’s not just about being given a ballot or having the opportunity to vote. They have to actually want to vote on that ballot, and we certainly see a lot of interest in voting, especially in those really high-profile, high-level elections that are held for US Senate or some of gubernatorial races. That seems to bring out the voters.
What we see in those states is a high level of early voting. We see a lot of democratic engagement.
What we would typically see in a midterm election is that the party holding the presidency would be punished in some way. For whatever reason, people find a reason to be angry and engaged about something that management has done.
But in these races we are not seeing some sort of referendum on the Biden presidency. In fact, look at the polls: People who highly disapprove (President Joe) Biden still says he will vote for the Democratic nominee. What’s happening here is that the election has turned into a choice between candidates, not a referendum on Biden.
If you look elsewhere in the country, we don’t see the same level of engagement. Without that engagement, the election becomes more of a referendum on Biden, and we could see a split outcome there, as many polls show.
If Democrats lose the House, it will likely be at least in part because their constituents simply haven’t found a reason to vote in a state like California.
As we enter this final week of early voting, that is challenge for the Democrats. How do you get your base to vote at the same level Republicans are in places where you don’t have this high-profile race driving people to the polls?
WOLF: It can we now suppose that because of the high turnout in certain states and because so many people used early voting, that some of those concerns about restrictive new voting laws were unfounded?
McDonald’s: I will give you a stupid and completely ridiculous answer to that. But there is a point to that. Do you know what this election is like? I see massive voter suppression happening in these elections.
I look back at the 2020 presidential election and turnout is down in every state. In these elections, there was massive voter suppression.
Of course, you think it’s funny. It’s funny because people vote at a higher rate in presidential elections than they do in midterm elections.
And just because you have an interesting race that gets people to vote for you a country like Georgia, that doesn’t mean that SB 202, which is a law that was passed in Georgia, somehow made it easier for everyone to vote in the state. This does not mean that there are certain communities that are not backward.
A good example of this, if you look at Georgia, is even though we’re seeing record numbers of in-person, early voters, we’re seeing ballots drop by about half. And you might say, well, that’s fine. People who would vote by mail will just vote in person or will vote on election day or early.
There could be people who, for whatever reason, are at home and cannot get to the polling station, and have to vote by mail. And for those people, they may not be able to participate to the same degree as other people in Georgia.
I won’t say that just because Georgia has a high early voter turnout, which means the law has not had a suppressive effect on any community in Georgia.
WOLF: Another new story from this election was the shift toward Republicans in your state of Florida led by a swing in the Hispanics and Latinos vote Republican. Is there anything from early voting that supports or refutes this? And do you agree with that larger narrative?
McDonald’s: We really can’t answer that question with the data we have, because we don’t know how people vote.
Overall, early votes in typical elections are usually won by Democrats, or at least registered Democrats. In this election cycle, Republicans are winning early elections.
So far, as of (November 2nd), registered Republicans have a nearly 180,000-vote lead in both mail-in and early voting, with most of that lead actually coming from in-person voting.
But still, all these Democrats have mail-in ballots. And here’s the interesting thing: they don’t return them. Not to the same degree or rate as the Republicans.
So if you look at the return rate, as of (November 2nd), 48% of Democrats have returned their mail-in ballots compared to 55% of Republicans. So these are people who have a mail-in ballot in hand, and you see a big disparity in these return rates.
Part of what’s happening in Florida is a self-fulfilling prophecy that people who don’t believe Democrats can win won’t vote. And since they don’t vote, the Democrats can’t win.
WOLF: Will 2022 turnout surpass 2018 midterms?
McDonald’s: We will see a high turnout. Georgia will likely eclipse their turnout in 2018. And some other states like Pennsylvania could.
But it’s very possible that we won’t see the same level of engagement in some of the bigger states like California, New York and Texas. And since most of the population lives in those big states and they don’t have competitive elections that pull turnout, we can see some unevenness.
I don’t expect it to come back until 2014. That was the lowest turnout in an election since 1942. But I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re below that in 2018.
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