There was a time when we would count down to election day. In fact, a lot of media is doing just that. But this year, by the start of ‘election day’, perhaps more than thirty percent of the voters will have already voted. Recent changes in absentee and early voting laws have created an opportunity for voters to have a much more convenient chance to vote. As a matter of fact, I voted over a week ago myself, because Texas opened early voting back on October 20th. A lot of pundits and media have been talking about early voting, which makes sense, but there has also been a lot of opinion tossed about which turns out not to have firm foundation under it. For example, I have read and heard about a supposed historical tendency for republicans to have an advantage over democrats in early voting. That’s true to a degree, because historically more seniors vote early and they have tended to be republicans. However, that trend was established with the restricted absentee votes, and since no-excuse absentee and early voting have begun, that trend evaporated. 34 states offer early voting this year, many for the first time, which is one reason why there is so little history for the practice as a national exercise. In 2000, roughly 14% of voters voted before the designated election day. In 2004, that portion rose to 22%, and this year election officials expect that portion to climb above 30%. Barack Obama has repeatedly urged his supporters to vote early and not wait for election day.
A lot of talk has focused on the results from early voting. That data is necessarily limited, by law as well as ethical rationale. It’s been long noted, for example, that some folks like to vote for a winner, and if they are persuaded that a candidate has locked up the win, they will go along rather than feel that they backed a loser. As a result, election results – especially vote tallies – are not supposed to be released until after all the polls close in a state. Poll results are often used to hint at the results, which may or may not be cheating, depending on whom you ask and how that information is presented, and we’re seeing a version of that in looking at the early voting results so far. Before we look at those results, I need to emphasize that there is no established standard to prove the meaning of a particular event in early voting. I had thought, myself, early on that it would be a good sign for McCain if republicans voted in numbers equal to democrats. It turns out that I had not thought that one through.
I read an interesting paper on the significance of early voting, by Kate Kenski writing about the Annenburg Election Survey for the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. For example, Kenski noted that early voting by black voters was low (2.8%) in 2000, but more than quadrupled that response in 2004. From that trend, it should not be surprising that black voters continue to increase participation in early voting, especially with Obama on the ticket. Another point of interest was that in 2000, Bush earned a much higher percentage of the vote in early voting, but in 2004 the percentages were much closer to election-day voters, possibly due to the extraordinary turnout in the overall election. 2008 will provide a lot of useful information about early voting demographics, but for now we are limited in what we can say from the existing record.
Dr. Michael McDonald at George Mason University has a website up for easy reference on early voting. It shows that already, more than sixteen million early votes have been cast. Party-specific references can be found for just nine of the thirty-four states offering early voting, so we should be careful about assuming the information is true for the whole nation, but so far it does indicate that democrats have been better-organized so far than republicans, from the following state results:
West Virginia: 59.4% democrats, 31.5% republicans
North Carolina: 54.0% democrats, 28.6% republicans
New Mexico: 55.1% democrats, 32.3% republicans
Nevada: 53.7% democrats, 29.6% republicans
Maine: 44.5% democrats, 28.6% republicans
Louisiana: 58.4% democrats, 28.5% republicans
Iowa: 48.9% democrats, 28.5% republicans
Florida: 45.4% democrats, 39.0% republicans
Colorado: 38.6% democrats, 37.9% republicans
Except for Colorado, the states which are reporting results by party affiliation show a strong showing by democrats relative to republicans. One possible reason for this is the strong proportion of black voters. The following states have reported the following percentages of black early voters to all early voters so far:
North Carolina: 27.6%
This news is likely to be taken, indeed has already been reported by some media, as evidence of a wave of Obama support. To some degree and reasoning this is true, since it is quite reasonable to expect that the heavy majority of democrats will vote for Obama, and therefore a large proportion of democrats means a lot of Obama votes. However, the reader should be reminded that each of these voters in the early count is a voter who will not be voting on election day; the high proportion of black voters now will, mathematically, require a lower proportion on election day, since no demographic can exceed the ceiling of its representative total. It benefits Obama insofar that a voter who has submitted their ballot represents the surest kind of voter turnout, but it should be remembered that 59 million votes was not enough for John Kerry to win in 2004, so the 16 to 17 million votes submitted so far can provide a head start for a candidate, but is far from all he will need.
Also worth considering, is the behavior of voters. Gallup has a nice article up on its site, and while it tilts a bit towards Obama, it notes that except for the West, most voters still plan to vote on Election Day, and it should be noted that in Kenski’s paper, she observed that most early voters vote less than seven days before election day, meaning that we could see a wild finish to early voting, one that could significantly change what we are seeing now in demographic terms. Also, while it is the only state which released early voting behavior by age group, I found it interesting to see that in North Carolina, only 12.3% of the voters were under 30, with 20.7% coming from the 30-44 group, 41.7% from the 45-64 age group, and 25.3% from the 65 and older group.
In conclusion, you can expect the Obama supporters to use this early information to claim they are winning easily, but there’s still several more days of early voting, and even if it’s record-setting in scale, the numbers from November 4 will still be the ones which do the most to decide the election.
To see why McCain supporters could still take hope, let’s play a little bit with the numbers we have available. I emphasize that these are not hard numbers nationally, but merely using the same extrapolation that Obama supporters would use for their own encouragement, but taken here to encourage McCain supporters. The nine states which are reporting party affiliation numbers are indicating an average of 48.1% of democrats among early voters, and 28.6% of republicans among early voters. The three states reporting black voter participation are reporting an average of 31.5% participation. Projected nationally, that would be 5,200,862 votes placed by black voters out of 16,514,867 total early votes. Since the polling data says that essentially all black voters are democrats this year, that means that there may have been 11,314,005 votes by non-black voters so far, of which 24.2% would be democrats and 41.9% are republicans. Further, if we assume that there will be roughly 130 million voters this year and that black voters represent about 11% of those voters, then we project that 14.3 million black voters will vote this year. With 5.2 million already having voted out of 16.3 million early votes so far, that would project the remaining black vote would be 9.1 million out of 113.7 million, or 8.0% of the remaining vote. Accordingly, the overall democrat percentage is going to drop as the vote progresses, as will the republican portion of the remaining non-black vote. As I have said before, the numbers may seem heavy in one direction now, but in the end the independents and late-deciders will make the difference.