All across Georgia since Oct. 12, voters have been standing in long lines. Many have brought folding chairs and snacks, knowing they may have to wait for three, six, or even eleven hours before it’s their turn to vote in the presidential election.
As of Wednesday, more than 1.9 million Georgians — an early voting record for the state — had already cast a ballot, with more than 1.2 million of those having been cast in person. Records were also smashed in Florida, where more than 350,000 people participated in the first day of early voting, and in Texas where some 60% of the entire 2016 vote has already been cast.
Huge early turnout like this can be seen as a sign of strong voter enthusiasm, and coupled with a deeply unpopular incumbent candidate, it’s easy to picture these motivated voters as simply angry Democrats and the huge numbers as an indication that Joe Biden is on an early path to victory.
But for swing states with early voting, the reality is more complicated.
Historically, Democrats have tended to vote early in greater numbers than Republicans, and that dynamic is exacerbated this year due to a number of factors. Fear of contracting the coronavirus is causing increased interest in early and mail-in voting among all voters, but President Donald Trump has pushed his supporters toward casting their ballots in person on Nov. 3, citing unfounded claims about voter fraud and integrity.
The combination of historic trends and 2020 complications has allowed Democrats to take a strong lead in early voting. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Democrats will end up with the most votes.
“I’ve learned the hard way not to make projections about the overall election based on the early in-person voting period,” said University of Georgia political science professor Trey Hood. “The fact that it looks like more Democrats are voting early is probably true, but there’s probably going to be less Democrats voting on Election Day.”
Republicans in Texas are already closing the gap created by the Democrats’ early lead. As of Wednesday evening, voters with a Republican voting history had narrowly cast more ballots in person than the Democrats — 31.2% of early votes to their 27.5%, according to analysis by Republican consultant Derek Ryan, who runs Texas political research firm Ryan Data.
On Monday, Ryan said he expects that gap to continue to widen in favor of Republicans, because fewer of them have voted so far and many plan to do so in the coming days, as well as on Election Day itself. However, he ultimately said the large numbers of votes cast by people with no established voting history for either party make the outcome impossible to predict.
“The big increase that you see is among Democratic voters, which is not surprising based on what we see in polling, which is that a lot of Democratic voters said they plan to vote early and in person this time,” said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at UT Austin. “But Republicans have also already surpassed their 2016 share of the early votes.”
“There’s a lot of early voting going on,” said Henson.
Data on where in Texas people are turning out to vote shows nearly equal enthusiasm in historically Democrat counties as in Republican ones, according to election analyst Dave Wasserman.
Some analysts have predicted the 2020 election will see historic levels of voter turnout, with 91% of voters saying they are “extremely motivated to vote” in a recent CNBC poll. According to a Gallup poll this month, Republicans and Democrats report giving roughly the same amount of thought to the election this year. Polling has also consistently shown Republicans are much more likely to vote on Election Day itself — 64% of Republicans who hadn’t yet voted said in a New York Times/Siena College poll this week that they planned to do so in person on Election Day, compared to just 33% of Democrats who hadn’t yet voted.
Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, also has found plenty of enthusiasm among both parties in his state.
“Democrats have shown more eagerness to vote early in Wisconsin this year in statewide surveys. And the bluest county in the state — Dane County — is leading the way,” Burden said. “But heavily Republican counties such as Waukesha County are also showing robust early voting. The tendency to vote early so far appears mostly to reflect communities with high rates of overall turnout generally, rather than a simple divide between Biden and Trump voters.”
On the first day of early voting Tuesday in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, a steady stream of voters came to City Hall under a steely gray sky. In a county that Trump won by more than 15 points in 2016, many said they were conservative.
Kathleen, a factory worker in Sheboygan, said she’d felt pushed to vote early by the Black Lives Matter protests that swept across the country this summer. “That upset me a lot, because everyone’s life matters,” Kathleen said.
She didn’t usually vote early, but she said that this year, she feared a “mob” of protesters might block her polling place on Election Day. “You just don’t know what they could do,” she said.
“I feel like there’s a line that’s been drawn,” said Pam, a Republican voter in Sheboygan who works as a dental hygienist. “Today, you’re either left or right. There’s no in-between.”
Of course, different states have different voting rules, so it’s not always easy to compare early figures. Voting by mail in Texas, for example, is limited to those who have a reason to request a ballot, like being older than 65 or out of state on Election Day. But anyone who is registered to vote in Texas can do so early in person, though Republicans have sought to restrict early voting, asking courts to reduce the number of polling places and overturn an expansion of the early voting period from three weeks back to two.
But those efforts won’t deter voters like Angela Hudson, a Republican in Denton County who said that while she hasn’t cast her ballot yet, she plans to do so before Election Day. “It seems like everyone is voting really early,” said Hudson, a part-time poll worker. “I just don’t want to wait to the very last minute.”
Ricky Rodriguez, also a Texas Republican in Tarrant County, already voted early and said he expects many others will do the same. “I always early vote, even before COVID,” he said. “I think most people will vote early due to, in Texas, we can vote anywhere within your county of residence. Also we have three weeks of early voting.”
While turnout has been high among all voter groups so far, in most states Democrats have so far turned out in greater numbers. Alexa Bankert, a University of Georgia professor who specializes in political psychology, said these voters are partly driven by anger at the current administration.
“We know from psychology that anger is a really big motivator in voting,” Bankert told BuzzFeed News. “So I think what you’re seeing right now is Democrats are really frightened and angry with the current administration, and that’s a really strong psychological motivator to put in the effort and stand in line for hours just to vote against the Republican party.”
“Most Republicans are quite satisfied with Trump,” Bankert added. “So they’re going to turn out to support their party, … [but] it’s simply a weaker motivator for turning out.”
Another factor that could slow or delay early voter turnout among Republicans is Trump’s vociferous and largely unsubstantiated critiques of mail-in voting. Though Trump has previously used an absentee ballot himself, the president has repeatedly claimed in public that mail ballots are more susceptible to voter fraud, though there is little evidence that such fraud actually exists. Despite the lack of proof, some Republicans who might have otherwise decided to use mail-in ballots or even vote early in person are, because of Trump’s rhetoric, choosing instead to wait for Election Day to cast their ballot.
Robert Stein, director of the Center for Civic Leadership at Rice University in Texas, said some early surveys his team ran suggested that Texas Republican voters' faith in the reliability of voting by mail had indeed been shaken.
“I think it could be detrimental particularly in a state like Florida,” Stein told BuzzFeed News. “No campaign wants their vote to come out on Election Day if they can get it in early.”
As of Wednesday, Republicans voting early in person had taken a slight lead over Democrats in Florida, according to the Florida Department of State’s elections division, but there’s one important caveat: “The Democrats are crushing the Republicans in vote by mail,” Steve Vancore, a Florida pollster and political analyst, told BuzzFeed News.
As of Wednesday, 1.4 million Florida Democrats had returned their vote-by-mail ballots, compared to just 900,828 Republicans. Of course, in addition to there being many unaffiliated voters, a person’s voter registration also doesn’t necessarily indicate who you’ll support in the election, especially in a year when many prominent Republicans are backing Biden.
But local GOP leaders in Florida say that while more Republicans will be choosing to vote in person because of Trump’s statements, concerns about the coronavirus and a long history of voting early in the state means plenty of Republicans will still be mailing in their ballots.
“I think there’s this national rhetoric going on that Republicans are going to vote in person and the Democrats are going to vote by mail, and I think that’s pretty accurate, but I also think that Republicans are voting by mail too,” said Jake Hoffman, president of the Tampa Bay Young Republicans. “The worry about the pandemic is less split down party lines than people think — there’s still a lot of older people in the Republican Party who fear coronavirus and getting sick, so they’re mailing in their ballots too.”
Republicans in Texas have long encouraged older people to vote by mail, going so far as to send unsolicited mail ballot request forms to the homes of older Republican voters. A longtime Republican consultant in Texas, who asked not to be identified because of her current political work, acknowledged that, like Democrats, Republicans want the early vote. But, she said, it’s too early to say whether trumped-up concerns about voter fraud impacted voting behavior among Texans.
Vancore, the Florida analyst, said he can’t yet make any projections, but he’s skeptical of Republicans in the state who’ve suggested the party will come out in droves to vote on Nov. 3.
“I’ve got Republicans telling me, ‘Republicans are really enthusiastic and they’re just waiting for Election Day,’” Vancore said. “But that’s like playing a sporting event, and saying, ‘We’re gonna kick your ass in the ninth inning.’”
Despite mounting pressures to take a bite out of a so-called blue wave, some Republicans are happy to wait.
“I plan to vote in person on Election Day,” said Rosemary Siblik, a Trump supporter in Wisconsin’s heavily Republican Walworth County. “There’s no middleman involved. There’s no mail involved. It’s you and the voting machine. I believe that’s the most accurate way to get a vote in.”
Siblik said her daughter is currently undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, and so she’s wary of contracting COVID-19 at the polls in Wisconsin, where cases are currently spiking. But despite her anxiety about potentially contracting and spreading the coronavirus, Siblik said she still plans to wear a mask and head to the town hall to vote.
“I will be there in person,” she said. “There’s too much fraud the other way around. That’s just the way I feel.”
Molly Hensley-Clancy contributed reporting from Sheboygan, Wisconsin.