What does early-vote surge mean for ‘Election Day’?

Voters embrace new balloting options; impact on outcomes unclear

WE’RE GOING TO have to come up with a better phrase than “Election Day,” given how many Americans have already voted this year. As of Monday, over 95 million votes have already been cast, with another 31 million mail ballots requested but not yet returned. Over two-thirds of the total number of votes cast in 2016 have already been received either by mail or via in-person early voting. 

Massachusetts is right on that national average, as of Saturday night, with 67 percent of 2016 votes received — 2.82 million now, versus 3.38 million votes cast in total four years ago. Secretary of State William Galvin estimated on Monday morning that an additional 1.3 million votes will be cast on Election Day, which would give the state an overall turnout comparable to that seen in 2016.

The early voting number is impressive given the Commonwealth’s relatively short history with early voting. Massachusetts first offered in-person early voting in the 2016 general election. This year, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the state added mail-in voting, and voters have responded with gusto. In the September primaries, 48 percent of all votes cast came in via the mail, four times as many as came in early in-person. In the general so far, 57 percent of early ballots have come in via the mail or local drop boxes, and 42 percent were cast in person. With in-person early voting over, and with nearly 300,000 ballots sent out that have yet to be returned, the final percentage of mail ballots will be higher still.

As in the primary, the most educated, most affluent towns have made the most of early voting, led by suburbs north and west of Boston. Lincoln, Sudbury, Acton, Concord, Lexington have all approached 90 percent of their 2016 vote total. Many of their regional neighbors exceeded 80 percent of their totals, as did a few communities on the Cape and Islands and a couple out West, including well-heeled Lenox.

Boston and the Gateway Cities produced large raw numbers early votes, but they are behind smaller, better-off towns in terms of voter turnout. Boston has only matched 56 percent of its 2016 total. Springfield (44 percent of 2016), Holyoke (45 percent), Chicopee (47 percent), Lowell (51 percent), Lawrence (46 percent), Fall River (46 percent), and New Bedford (45 percent) are even lower. Voters in these cities, which are home to the majority of the Commonwealths’ black and brown residents, may face long lines on Election Day.

Campaigns and analysts have been reading the early vote totals from across the country like tea leaves. Does the fact that Texas has already exceeded its 2016 vote total mean it may finally flip blue? It’s hard to tell exactly what to make of it, since Texas doesn’t have party registration. Conventional wisdom — and Republican efforts to suppress votes — suggests higher early voting, like higher turnout generally, likely benefits Democrats. In states that do track partisanship, it appears Democrats jumped up to an initial lead in early voting, and Republicans have been whittling down the margin. 

One possible explanation for this is more liberal voters and white voters tend to cast their ballots earlier, while more conservative voters, as well as black and Latino voters, cast their ballots closer to Election Day or show up in person. 

Here in Massachusetts, Galvin said on Monday morning that 55 percent of registered Democrats have already voted compared with 37 percent of registered Republicans. Democrats also made far more use of early voting in their September primary than did Republicans — 64 percent early votes in the Democratic primary versus 38 percent in the GOP contest. 

A WBUR poll from August suggested voters supporting Joe Biden planned to vote early, while Donald Trump drew even to Biden among those planning to vote on Election Day. This is showing up in the early vote data. The median early voting turnout in communities Hillary Clinton won in 2016 is 54 percent, compared to 43 percent in towns Trump won. The question nationwide and in battleground states is whether a surge of later Republican ballots are enough to overcome record Democratic early votes along with Election Day voting in communities of color. 

Here in Massachusetts, there is little doubt about the presidential and Senate contests except for the margin. But relative turnout between parties could determine the fate of Question 2 to create ranked-choice voting in Massachusetts. That question has become much more partisan in recent weeks, with Gov. Charlie Baker and other Republican heavyweights coming out against it and Democratic leaders, including former senator and secretary of state John Kerry, coming out in favor of it. 

Question 2 has led narrowly in recent polls, but its support remains below 50 percent. Typically, undecided voters opt for the “no” side in ballot questions to preserve the status quo, meaning a nominal lead is less meaningful for a ballot question than in an election for office. Even so, ranked-choice voting has already run counter to conventional wisdom by seeing its support percentage grow in recent polls. If it passes narrowly, higher turnout among Democrats and the growing partisan divides over the question will likely help push it over the line. 

But a more fundamental question is whether early voting, now that it has come to Massachusetts, will change the amount of power different groups of voters will have in Massachusetts. Right now, the top quintile of towns, by early turnout, accounts for 23 percent of all votes cast. That’s up from 19 percent of the 2016 total and equal to the 23 percent coming from the least-early voting towns, which include Boston and many Gateway Cities. In 2016, that bottom quintile accounted for 28 percent of the total. 

Meet the Author

Richard Parr

Research director, MassINC Polling Group
Election Day should bring these groups closer to balance, but will it snap back all of the way? In the September Democratic primary, the top early voting towns ended up with a higher than average share of the vote even after Election Day votes came in. In other words, the early voting towns — which, again, tend to be affluent and educated suburbs — increased their power relative to the Commonwealth’s cities. If that happens after the votes are counted Tuesday, it would suggest that early voting — a reform meant to make voting easier and more accessible — is actually intensifying the privileges of wealth and education. 

Massachusetts won’t have the final totals for “early votes” until after Election Day is past. That’s because mail-in ballots will be accepted through November 6 as long as they are postmarked by Election Day. National Republican leaders (including the president) are making baseless arguments that the votes counted by Election Day should determine the winner. That has never been the way our elections have worked. With so many casting their ballots via mail, drop boxes, drive throughs, early voting stations, we should probably just retire the term “Election Day” altogether.