Election Day may be five weeks off, but early voting is already underway for the midterms in 37 states and the District of Columbia. And there are now three states — Colorado, Washington and Oregon — that have gone to a full early-voting system by mailing out ballots to all registered voters.
Since the photo finish and “hanging chads” confusion of the 2000 presidential election, voting systems were revamped nationwide. One of the changes was the expansion of absentee and early voting, with the total number of early, absentee and mail-in ballots hitting 57.2 million in 2016, a 130 percent jump from the 2004 figure of 24.9 million.
The profile of an early voter tends to be more partisan, older and well educated. Early voters are also motivated and organized, which stands to reason since there are many steps involved, particularly with absentee voting; one must obtain the ballot in advance, fill it out correctly and mail it back on time.
These tend not to be the strongest traits of millennial voters. Fairfax County, Va., government recently surveyed the voting behavior of its summer interns, and discovered that a major obstacle to mailing in ballots was not knowing how to get a postage stamp. (For some millennials, mailing anything is a new experience.)
In addition, “college students are busy and the slightest hurdle can prevent them from mailing back a ballot,” said Lisa Connors, a public affairs officer with Fairfax County. She added, “Having a book of stamps or mailing anything is an old-fashioned concept.”
In many states, ballots now include return postage, so the completed ballot is automatically sent to election officials, who will reimburse the Postal Service for the expense. But this assumes millennials know about mailboxes.
One consequence of early voting may be that it is causing married couples to be ticket splitters, say some observers of the trend. For the first time in exit-polling history, a majority of married women – traditionally backers of the Republican presidential candidate – reported supporting a Democrat in 2016 (Hillary Clinton, 47 percent to 45 percent over Donald Trump). The Democratic narrative is that Republican men have less influence over their spouses’ votes when married couples go to the polls separately or vote at different times with early voting.
“Married women have a tendency to vote the same way as their husbands and we wanted to persuade them to separate,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster involved with turning out the women’s vote in 2016. The theory is that early voting disrupts the process of husbands and wives discussing who they are going to support on their way to the polling location.
Others disagree with this notion. “It’s condescending to think women are intimidated and bullied by their husbands to vote Republican,” said Inez Stepman, senior policy analyst at the right-leaning Independent Women’s Forum.
Despite early voting being on the rise and something championed by civic-minded reformers, it’s unclear if it is increasing turnout or changing the outcomes of elections. In fact, some studies indicate that early voting is reducing turnout by diluting the enthusiasm generated in the build-up to Election Day.
“It all depends on how much campaigns and political parties target early voters in their get-out-the-vote strategy,” said Michael McDonald, a voting trends analyst at the University of Florida. In presidential and highly contested races, people who vote early tend to be involved in the political process and registered with a party. McDonald believes how and when one votes simply amounts to “shuffling the furniture around, because highly motivated and engaged voters show up either as an early voter or on Election Day. It doesn’t change the election totals.”