A number of reporters have asked me how early voting may have changed campaigns. I describe a longer period of voter mobilization. I describe get out the early vote rallies, such as Obama is holding in Illinois this week. And I talk about how Election Day has been changed from a day where half or more of the citizenry go to a local school, community building, or government office to cast a ballot to the end of a two or three week period of balloting.
But sometimes a picture tells a thousand words, and I think the graphic below, comparing early voting rates in North Carolina in 2004, 2008, and for the first five of early voting in 2012, says it all.
If you were campaigning in the Tarheel State in 2004, elections were all about the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. A few days before the 2004 election, about 15% of Democrats and Republicans had voted early. A week out, less than 10% of ballots were cast. These voters mattered, of course, especially in a close contest, but campaigns kept their resources in check to focus on the 85% of partisans who cast an Election Day ballot.
In 2008, Barack Obama’s candidacy was the trumpet of Joshua that felled the Election Day wall. Anyone familiar with the 2008 race cannot forget the long lines of Black voters waiting in the Fall heat to cast a historic vote for the candidate who would eventually be elected as our first African American president.
But it wasn’t just Obama. Usage among Republican and Unaffiliated voters also leapt in response to the key legislative change: making absentee voting a “one-stop” process, essentially converting it into early in-person voting. The result was that 2.6 million out of 4.4 million ballots were cast early and, at least for Democrats, half of those came in 7 or more days before Election Day.
Fast forward to 2012. Once again, voters are enduring long early voting lines. Democratic rates in particular are exceeding 2008 rates. Republicans are lagging, but still are turning out earlier than in 2008. And any candidate who wants to win the state has to be already on the ground, because if they aren’t, their opponent could be 30-40% ahead by election day.
(This post is co-authored with Jacob Canter, Reed sophomore junior and EVIC research assistant)
The early ballots are beginning to pile up in North Carolina, and we can finally start to discern some patterns of turnout by partisanship and by race.
As Michael McDonald has pointed out on Friday, it’s important in this state (as in many states) to carefully discriminate between ballots requested and returned by mail–no excuse absentee ballots–and ballots that are cast in person at an early voting location. What makes the NC situation a bit confusing for any new to early voting is that the state describes both modes of balloting as “absentee” voting; the early in-person variant is called “one-stop absentee voting” because the absentee ballot is requested “in-person.” Turnout reports are merged into a single file; the critical field in this file is “Ballot Request Type” which contains entries for “Mail”, “In Person”, “Overseas”, and “Military.”
The first graphic reports the number of ballots returned (and in the case of by mail ballots, accepted) as a proportion of all registered voters, by party. The interesting pattern to notice here is the sudden increase in Democratic turnout on the 20th-18th days before the election. This corresponds to the start of early in-person voting.
The underlying data show that Republicans use by-mail voting at a much higher rate in the state than do Democrats (the first graphic of raw returns is useful in NC only because the proportions of party registrants is roughly comparable–I need to have Jacob reproduce these as proportions of party registrants later this week).
The second graphic shows that of the ballots requested there is only a slight difference in the rate of return by party. This is what McDonald refers to as the lack of substantially higher Republican enthusiasm in the state at this point.
Finally, the in-person rates by race illustrate both the stronger preference for this method among African Americans in the state, and of course, help account for a large portion of the party pattern observed above. In my opinion, it’s a bit early to conclude much about Democratic mobilization efforts until we have another few days of data. We’ll work on comparing these trend lines to 2008 in a few days.
And now a quick look at party returns. Keep in mind that early in-person (“one stop absentee”) has only just begun in North Carolina. These first days should reveal a surge of African-American turnout for Obama, if patterns from 2008 hold. In four or five more days, we will finally have enough data to start to compare the mobilization efforts of Obama and Romney in the state.
The one-stop absentee voting option has begun in North Carolina, and in-person votes are going to quickly swamp the no-excuse absentee by-mail ballots.
As of the close of balloting last night, the absentee ballot file includes 337,609 records. The breakdown of these by type of ballot is as follows:
However, as anyone who is familiar with by-mail and in-person voting knows, there are racial and partisan differences underlying these data.
As shown below, 92% of the by-mail absentee ballot requests were made by White voters while only 61.8% of the one-stop returns (thus far) have come from White voters. (By the way, 40%, or 60,957 White voters have returned their by-mail ballots compared to 34% or 4406 of Black voters.) This is the main reason that states that have tried to shorten the early in-person voting period without altering the absentee by-mail period have faced close scrutiny.
This is a really well-implemented tool, and I encourage everyone to look at it.
I’m not quite sure what to conclude from the early voting numbers, plotted here and available by clicking this link (bloggers who want to grab a permalink from this site–click on the “share” button and you can grab the URL).
On the one hand, they show a pretty consistent 15 point advantage in the Obama vote among those respondents who say they have cast an early vote.
I looked more closely at the data, and they show 36.9% of the respondent pool thus far say they are Democrats versus 31.7% Republican. That is 3% above (Dem) / below (GOP) Gallup’s current estimate of party affiliation among likely voters.
What makes this hard to evaluate is that the states which currently have sent out absentee ballots are not a random subset of the nation as a whole. Nonetheless, in another week or so, these figures might start to give us a real sense of how the early vote is shaping up.
A standard line in my opening lecture to new students of political science is some variant of this:
Studying politics can be exciting and can be frustrating because political actors are also strategic actors. They make the rules, the break the rules, and then they rewrite the rules. While you may be able to generalize about political actors, it’s very hard to generalize about political outcomes.
This lesson applies to this year’s coverage of early voting. Both campaigns have learned lessons from past elections. Both campaigns have been monitoring legal changes in the states. And both campaigns are spending millions of dollars trying to mobilize the early vote by whatever means necessary.
Early voting is a moving target, and shooting at the bullseye in 2008 is almost surely going to miss the target in 2012.
If you line these and other stories up, it’s clear that the Obama campaign focused a lot of effort on recruiting more Democrats to apply for and cast absentee ballots in Iowa. Result: an early Democratic surge in absentee votes. Reaction: Romney campaign has redoubled their mobilization efforts in response.
As I posted a few days ago, the same thing appears to be happening in Florida. Given the uncertainty over the early in-person voting period, the Obama campaign redirected resources to encourage Democratic-leaning voters to request and cast absentee ballots. Result? An “advantage” for the Democrats in absentee ballots!
This is why I’ve been resisting making broad conclusions about what these early early voting numbers mean. Not every commentator has been so circumspect. This might make for a nice story that will be forgotten a week later (see: Iowa) but it doesn’t make for informed political commentary.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but online voter registration is not just about adding more citizens to the voter rolls. In fact, that might be it’s least important contribution.
OVR should result in registration rolls that are more accurate, more efficient, and cost a lot less money to maintain.
These are the takeaways from Pew’s report on the current voter registration systems: Inaccurate, Costly, and Inefficient: Evidence That America’s Voter Registration System Needs an Upgrade. The report authors write:
At a time when government budgets are significantly strained, our antiquated paperbased system remains costly and inefficient…
The paper-based processes of most registration systems present several opportunities for error…
Election officials administer a system that is fundamentally inefficient in a number of ways
It may be the case that these new systems have resulted in a higher increase in the number of new registrants than we would have otherwise seen in a presidential election year, but until we can conduct some comparative analyses after the election, we won’t know the answer.
We do know for certain that the registration records added in the thirteen states are far less likely to be invalidated due to errors, can be quickly and easily cross-checked with other statewide data systems if a state chooses to do so, and have cost the states less money than the old paper forms.
Cheaper, less prone to error, less vulnerable to fraud. And maybe more registrations than before.
Just like voting by mail was initially misbranded only as a way to increase turnout, OVR is not only about more registrants. It’s about taking advantage of technology to modernize our elections system.
What’s not to like?
A Boise Public Radio story today describes Oregon and Washington, the only fully vote by mail states in the nation, as late to the party:
But the push for “early voting” across the country is making vote-by-mail states look like late arrivals to the party. In Idaho, voters in some counties have been going to the polls since late September.
Here’s an alternative interpretation: Oregon and Washington realize that it does not take two months to deliver a vote by mail ballot a few miles verssus the few thousand miles that it takes to deliver a UOCAVA ballot.
Perhaps Oregon and Washington are latecomers to the party. All that is left on the table are a few meager morsels. The bar closed long ago.
Perhaps they are not late to the party after all. Perhaps the thirty states that mailed their absentee ballots in September (led by North Carolina, a superbly administered state, yet mailed ballots way back on September 6th) are like those early arriving guests, knocking on your door when you don’t even have the hors d’oeuvres ready. Give them some cold cheese slices!
Somehow, Oregon and Washington manage to mail their ballots just over two weeks before Election Day yet still rank near the top in terms of voter participation. It seems to me that the two states time things just right, and it’s those states that encourage voters to cast a ballot two months before Election Day that may need to rethink things.
There is a really cool graphic in today’s 538 blog at the NY TImes that is making its way around the internet. The graphic is creative and awfully pretty, but the focus on individual states as independent entities, “swinging” in response to individual presidential candidacies, is almost certainly wrong.
As Jim Stimson showed a decade ago in Tides of Consent, and Ben Page and Bob Shapiro (find me in the acknowledgements!) showed two decades ago in The Rational Public, the nation as a whole has swung in fairly consistent patterns between liberal and conservative policy positions.
What’s revealing to me in the Times figure is which states maintain a position consistently in the middle of the distribution, the consistent swing states, but also those states that move most in response to individual candidacies.
The ability to mouse over and view a state’s trajectory is very instructive. I can imagine every state politics instructor today is showing this to his students.
But let’s not overstate the independent movement of individual states, as the authors do at the start:
The latest FiveThirtyEight forecast shows many states shifting to the right. Florida, North Carolina and Indiana are more likely than not to shift back to Republicans.
The nation as a whole is shifting slightly back to Romney. We only pay attention to Florida, North Carolina, and Indiana because they are on the cusp.
I don’t want to suggest that there are not unique, idiosyncratic policy issues and ideological responses tied to a states history or political culture, but what I see primarily in the graphic is a reflection of policy mood, not states swinging back and forth on individual trajectories.