Image for Brisk Early Voting Presages an Electoral Tsunami in 2020

More than 1 million votes have been cast in the 2020 general election before the first presidential debate or the first day of October. One election observer says early voting may presage an electoral tsunami that sets records for votes cast and voter turnout.

According to Michael McDonald, head of the US Elections Project, voters have cast early ballots in 13 states, led by Virginia (287,000), North Carolina (248,000) and Wisconsin (238,000). Early voting also is occurring in Minnesota (75,000), Georgia (40,000), South Dakota (36,000), Michigan (28,000) and Florida (7,500). Wisconsin, Michigan and Florida are considered battleground states. 

McDonald told NPR that Democratic early voters currently outnumber Republicans by 2 to 1, even though early voters traditionally tend to be Republicans.

Almost 65 million voters have requested mail-in ballots or, in states such as Oregon, Washington and Colorado, will automatically receive them. Those numbers lead McDonald and others to predict a general election turnout exceeding 150 million voters and turnout reaching 67 percent. He refers to it as a “voter turnout storm of a century”.

Catalist, a Democratic voter-targeting firm, projects 156 million votes cast in the 2020 election, which would eclipse the 139 million voters cast in the 2016 presidential election. A GOP public opinion firm also predicts a massive turnout, with unprecedented voter diversity. “The emotion behind politics … is sky-high, and I don’t think it’s just on one side. I think it’s on both sides,” Glen Bolger, a partner at Public Opinion Strategies, said in an interview in The Atlantic.

McDonald believes voter turnout will top the previous record of 65.7 percent of eligible voters in the 1908 election, as well as the 63.8 percent turnout in 1960 and the 61.6 percent participation rate in 2008 when John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama were elected, respectively.

The emotion behind politics … is sky-high, and I don’t think it’s just on one side. I think it’s on both sides.

Indicators of high turnout include the exploding number of small donors, immigrant children coming of age and the rising activism of Millennials.  Women voters also are highly motivated this year. Another hint was the robust turnout in the 2018 midterm election, which attracted 120 voters and the largest participation rate in a non-presidential election since 1914.

Millennials, who were born between 1981 and 2000, could represent more than 34 percent of eligible voters in 2020. Minorities may represent the majority of new voters since 2016. For comparison, Baby Boomers make up 28.4 percent of the electorate.

Women, who constitute 53 percent of the total electorate, also have higher turnout rates than their male counterparts. In the 2018 midterm election, turnout by male voters increased by 11 percent and by 12 percent for female voters, resulting in 3.2 percent “gender gap” in voting.

While Millennials and minorities trend toward Democrats, the question is whether they will actually vote. In the 2016 election, African-American turnout dropped to 59 percent, less than half of eligible Latinos cast ballots and younger voter participation reached less than 30 percent. By contrast, two-thirds of white voters cast ballots. That began to change in the 2018 midterm election when cohorts that have a history of lower participation showed up to vote. For example, turnout among voters 25 years or younger spiked from 17 percent in 2014 to 32 percent in 2018.

An increasing percentage of whites without a college degree also appear motivated to vote in 2020, election observers say. A wild card this year, they add, is turnout levels of blue-collar voters, who could determine which candidate carries critical Rust Belt states.

Census data indicates the percentage of white voters without a college degree has continued to decline from 61 percent as recently as 1972 to 44 percent in 2016. In the same period, college-educated white voters have climbed from 24 percent to 30 percent and minority voters from 15 percent to 26 percent. The states with the least demographic change are in the Rust Belt, where it’s possible white voters without a college degree could actually represent a larger share of the voter pool than in 2016.