Evaluation: Don’t be fooled by excessive early US voting numbers | US & Canada
Historically, early voting results are not a good predictor of the outcome of the presidential race.
This is the point in a presidential campaign where people want to know, “Who will win?” Rarely is there a definite answer to this question at this point, yet many seek facts and figures to solve this puzzle beforehand.
One of those tangible pieces of evidence that got a lot of publicity ahead of the elections is the premature vote. Currently, more than 29.6 million people have voted early by mail or in person, which shattered the records of 2016.
If recent election analysis is a prologue, experts will likely view these early statistics as a crystal ball in terms of final vote count. The problem is that this data is an extremely incomplete predictive tool.
By the way, a big story just before the 2016 elections was an alleged “spike” in voter turnout in Latino based on limited data that allowed early voting. The New York Times confidently wrote just before Election Day: “Early voting data clearly suggests Hillary Clinton will benefit from a long-awaited surge in Hispanic turnout that far outstrips the Hispanic turnout four years ago.”
Reality wasn’t the bomb it was supposed to be, as the Pew Research Center summed it up: “Voter turnout remained unchanged despite election day expectations of a long-awaited historic surge in Latino voters.”
This is just one example of the trap some analysts fell into by reading too much early voting stats in the President’s final race.
Traditionally, the total number of early votes are a minority of the total votes. According to the US Election Support Commission, 41 percent of the votes were cast early in 2016 in person or by mail. And while that percentage is expected to be significantly dwarfed by the pandemic this year, there is still only a limited amount of information – albeit important information – that can be gleaned from early voting statistics.
- In the 16 states that offer registration data for parties, we can determine how many voters have requested and returned ballot papers by party affiliation
- In addition, nine states offer statistics on how many voters per party voted early in person
- There are even some states that break down early voting data by race and ethnicity
This is all interesting information and it absolutely provides a great insight into who is most excited about voting. This is also data that campaigns can use to gauge where to highlight their last minute voting efforts and who to target those efforts with.
What it doesn’t tell us is which candidate those voters picked, or how the early numbers fit into the bigger picture of voter turnout after all the votes are cast on election day.
Even if the pandemic leads to an skyrocketing number of votes before November 3, a significant personal turnout can be expected on election day, especially among Republican voters. And that makes it very difficult to use that information as a predictor of the outcome.
Recent polls suggest that Joe Biden will benefit by a wide margin from an early vote.
A poll released last week by NPR / PBS NewsHour / Marist found that one in five voters said they would vote early in person and one in three voters said they would vote by mail. In the survey, Biden leads with 35 points among the personal early voters and with 50 points among the mail-in voters.
However, there is an important reminder in the NPR survey: 45 percent of those surveyed say they want to vote in person on election day. Of that 45 percent, two-thirds are Trump supporters and Trump leads Voter Day by 27 points over Biden.
Voter Day messed up the predictions of many analysts in the recent election. In both 2012 and 2016, North Carolina was seen as moving towards the Democrats in the early voting stages. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton lost the state after all the votes were counted. In 2016, Florida and Arizona were discussed as potential victories for Clinton because of the early turnout for Latino people. Trump won both.
These should be lessons for those who wish to draw conclusions over the next few weeks. The number of expected voters on election day is significant. In 2016, the poll showed that Trump convinced the 13 percent of voters across the country who voted in the last election week. Extreme caution is required before linking any potential bottom line to an early vote.