In Madison, Wisconsin, thousands of people have gone to parks to deliver their ballots during Saturday voting festivals. In Milwaukee, Facebook feeds are inundated with selfies of Democrats inserting ballots into drop boxes. And along the shores of Lake Superior, voters in Wisconsin’s liberal northwest corner still trust the Postal Service to deliver ballots.
Of all the mini-battlegrounds within Wisconsin — perhaps the most pivotal state in November for both President Donald Trump and Joe Biden — the mother lode of absentee ballots is coming in Dane County, a Democratic stronghold that includes Madison. As of Friday, the number of submitted ballots there amounted to more than 36% of the county’s total 2016 election vote, a sign of significant enthusiasm; that figure is 10 percentage points higher than in any other county in the state.
In Wisconsin’s Republican heartland, the suburban counties that ring Milwaukee, the absentee turnout is only at about the state average so far. And in the dozens of rural counties where Trump won huge victories four years ago, ballots are being returned at a far slower rate than in the state’s Democratic areas.
The yawning disparities in voting across Wisconsin and several other key battlegrounds so far are among the clearest signs yet this fall that the Democratic embrace of absentee voting is resulting in head starts for the party ahead of Election Day. For Republicans, the voting patterns underscore the huge bet they are placing on high turnout on Nov. 3, even as states like Wisconsin face safety concerns at polling sites given the spikes in coronavirus cases.
The Democratic enthusiasm to vote is not limited to Wisconsin. Ballot return data from heavily Democratic cities like Pittsburgh; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and Tampa, Florida, and the long lines of cars waiting at a Houston arena to drop off ballots, are signs that many voters have followed through on their intentions to cast ballots well ahead of Nov. 3.
There is still time for Republicans to catch up in many places, and they are expected to vote in strong numbers in person on Election Day. And untold numbers of absentee ballots could be rejected for failing to fulfill requirements, like witness signatures, or could face legal challenges. But in states that have begun accepting absentee ballots, Democrats have built what appears to be a sizable advantage, after years when Republicans were usually more likely to vote by mail.
Tom Bonier, the chief executive of TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm, said his models showed Democrats with a 10-point advantage among the 275,000 first-time voters nationwide who had already cast ballots and an 18-point lead among 1.1 million “sporadic voters” who had already voted.
At the same point in the 2016 cycle, Bonier said, his model showed Democrats with a 1.6-point advantage among sporadic voters.
“Democrats are highly engaged, and they’re turning out,” Bonier said. “Republicans can’t say the same.”
Across the country, voters in states with little history of casting their ballots weeks before Election Day have embraced the practice as the nation grapples with the eighth month of a pandemic that has so far killed more than 212,000 Americans.
As of Friday, more than 8.3 million ballots had already been received by elections officials in the 30 states that have made data available. In six states — including the battlegrounds of Wisconsin and Minnesota — the number of ballots returned already is more than 20% of the entire 2016 turnout.
The Wisconsin ballot numbers illustrate how much voting has changed in the pandemic era. In the 2016 general election, 146,294 Wisconsinites voted by mail, and 666,035 others voted at in-person early-voting sites. In the current general election, 646,987 people have already voted absentee as of Friday. Early-voting sites start opening in Wisconsin on Oct. 20.
Wisconsin’s municipal clerks can begin tabulating absentee ballots once the polls open on Election Day. As a result, the full results from early voting in Wisconsin as well as some other states may not be known after Nov. 3.
Officials from both parties say that Democrats are far more eager to vote early, a consequence of encouragement from party leaders like Biden and former President Barack Obama to vote as soon as possible to avoid possibly exposing themselves to the virus at Election Day polling sites. Many Republicans have followed the lead of Trump, who has regularly castigated voting by mail, while the party’s leadership in some states has offered mixed messages about when supporters should vote.
While Wisconsin Democrats have waged a campaign for months to urge voters to request absentee ballots and return them quickly, the Republican Party of Wisconsin recently sent mail to its supporters urging them to hand-deliver ballots to their local municipal clerks. But in much of Republican-heavy rural Wisconsin, clerks work only part-time, leaving fewer opportunities to return ballots by hand.
“The left is very focused on getting their people to request absentee ballots and return them,” said Matt Batzel, the Cedar Grove, Wisconsin-based executive director of American Majority, a conservative grassroots training organization. “Democrats are in the lead as of the ballots that are returned, no doubt.”
Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political science professor, said the 2020 presidential election is the first in which Democrats are casting pre-Election Day ballots at a faster rate than Republicans.
In Florida, he said, 11.5% of Democrats who requested absentee ballots have returned them, compared with 8.7% of Republicans. The same pattern emerges in another battleground state, North Carolina, where the return rate for Democratic ballots is 32.9% and the return rate for Republicans is 27.4%.
This early advantage, particularly in states like Florida, is worrying some Republicans. While many Republicans expected turnout before Election Day to be slightly depressed by the president’s criticism of mail voting, the gap means that Republicans have to flood the polls on Election Day. And a lack of absentee ballots returned could leave the GOP blind as it adjusts its get-out-the-vote operation in the weeks ahead.
“One of the advantages of having absentee ballots or voting by mail is it gives you a little bit of a snapshot as they are returned, and finding out who is returning them and where you are in your field operation,” said Matt Gorman, a Republican strategist. “If Republicans aren’t getting accurate reads on that, they’re not getting accurate reads on where they need to adjust more.”
Alex Conant, a veteran adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said the president’s continued belittling and questioning voting by mail had suppressed Republican turnout.
“In Florida, Republicans have a really good early-vote program,” he said. “The president takes advantage of it. So why the president would tell Republicans in Florida not to vote early, when historically that’s how we run elections in Florida, is very concerning.”
Just 26% of Democrats said they planned to vote in person on Election Day, compared with 56% of Republicans, according to polling of likely voters in 11 battleground states conducted by The New York Times and Siena College since Sept. 8.
“People that I’m talking to are going to go to the polls,” said James Edming, a Republican assemblyman from northern Wisconsin who was the first elected official there to endorse Trump’s 2016 campaign. “If you put ’em in the mail, God only knows. But if I turn it in to the clerk at the Town of True, I know it’s going to count.”
Looming over the absentee ballot returns are the continued lawsuits and systemic problems that the president has seized on in an attempt to cast doubt on mail voting. There are currently hundreds of lawsuits across the country, still undecided, regarding the rules and regulations of how ballots will be cast and counted.
In Pennsylvania, for example, the secretary of state is still seeking court guidance on whether the state is required to perform signature matching on absentee ballots, and the state is still waiting on a potential Supreme Court ruling regarding ballot deadlines.
Election officials nationwide are also bracing for challenges to some ballots, over whether postmarks are clear and legible or whether signatures were incorrectly rejected.
News of ballot errors, while infrequent, has nonetheless received outsize attention and amplification, mostly from the president. Still, the issues raise some doubt about the ability of cities and states to meet the surge in demand for mail-in ballots. In Ohio, nearly 50,000 ballots were mailed out with incorrect information. In Brooklyn, nearly 100,000 ballots were sent out with similar errors.
Even within states, the effort put toward absentee voting varies wildly.
To vote early in Pennsylvania, a voter can go to a county election office to request an absentee ballot, fill it out in person and submit it on the spot. The Pennsylvania secretary of state encouraged counties to open satellite election offices.
But not every county has done so. Philadelphia, for example, has seven open and will have 17 throughout the city by Election Day. In Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, there will be five open on weekends throughout October. But in Lackawanna County in northeastern Pennsylvania, there are no satellite election offices.
And in North Carolina, Democratic-leaning counties around Asheville, Charlotte and Raleigh have high rates of absentee voting so far, but a half-dozen rural Democratic counties with majority Black populations have some of the state’s lowest turnout ratios so far.
In Wisconsin, election officials in Milwaukee and Madison, the state’s largest and most heavily Democratic cities, have sought to make absentee voting more accessible to avoid large gatherings at the polls.
For the last two Saturdays, the Madison municipal clerk’s office has sent 1,000 poll workers to more than 200 city parks, where they have collected more than 16,000 ballots. Milwaukee officials have 13 drop box sites across town, which have become the city’s latest selfie-taking hot spots.
“I see lots of pictures on Facebook of people taking selfies as they drop their ballots into the boxes,” said Sachin Chheda, a Democratic consultant in Milwaukee. “And I’m not seeing that a little bit, I’m seeing a ton of that.”
Up north, turnout in Ashland County, a rare rural county that backed Hillary Clinton in 2016, is already at 22% of the 2016 total. In adjacent Price County, where Trump won 60% of the 2016 vote, turnout is lower so far, matching just 14% of 2016’s turnout.
“There’s a lot of trust in our mail system up here and a lot of dependence on the mail system,” said Xristobal Ramirez, the chairman of the Chequamegon Democratic Party, which covers Ashland and nearby Bayfield counties along the Lake Superior shore. “The mail generally doesn’t fail us out here.