Long lines at early voting sites, huge increases in mail-in ballots due to the pandemic and polls showing sky-high enthusiasm for voting are all pointing to record turnout in the 2020 presidential election.
With just 17 days until Election Day, more than 22.2 million people have voted in the general election either in person or through the mail, according to figures from 42 states and the District of Columbia compiled by the Associated Press. For comparison, more than 58 million early ballots were cast in 2016 out of more than 136 million.
Through Friday, at least 10 states had already exceeded the amount of early votes they received during the entire 2016 election. That includes the competitive states of Pennsylvania, Minnesota and New Hampshire.
The surge in early balloting comes as more states open up early voting sites and the campaigns of former Vice President Joe Biden and President Trump make their final pushes to get their voters to the polls.
The pandemic is also changing how Americans approach voting this election, with many avoiding crowding into polling locations on Election Day by voting by mail or early in person. The potential for late changes to deadlines due to partisan legal battles and worries about the integrity of the electoral process are also weighing on the minds of voters in several states.
Jan-Gregory D’Aguiar, a 41-year-old Democrat in Atlanta, said his household was splitting up how they would cast their ballots to increase the odds their votes would be properly counted.
“We are concerned about our votes being stolen,” Mr. D’Aguiar said. He planned to vote by mail, his wife voted early in person and his niece, who lives with the couple, was going to vote absentee and drop her ballot in a new election drop box.
Georgia election officials added polling stations and began using ballot drop boxes for the first time to try to handle an expected record number of voters. This week, though, the first day of early voting in the state turned into a bottleneck of hourslong lines at many polling stations in the state’s most populated counties.
That day, more than 131,000 people cast ballots compared with about 91,000 four years ago, according to the Georgia secretary of state’s office. Absentee ballot requests also increased sharply. By Wednesday, when the initial rush had largely dissipated, more than 10% of Georgia’s registered voters had cast ballots, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said.
In the Atlanta suburb of Acworth, Amber Ray, a 55-year-old Republican, said she heard rumors that people were going to try to disrupt Election Day voting. She decided to vote early in person rather than by mail or dropbox. “I prefer to throw the lever,” she said.
Even before the voting started, many election analysts said that record turnout in the 2018 midterms suggested that 2020 voting would also hit a new high, with several projecting that Americans would cast 150 million presidential ballots.
At that level, total votes would rise about 9% from 2016, and turnout would reach its highest mark since 1908, at 65% of eligible voters, said Michael McDonald, who tracks voting trends through his United States Elections Project website.
While the early voting numbers surely include people who in other years voted on Election Day, Mr. McDonald pointed to several factors that suggest the returned ballots reflect higher turnout, and not just the parties “cannibalizing’’ their Election Day vote. Among them: An uptick in small-dollar political donations, increased consumption of political news and the record number of ballots cast in 2018, which marked the highest midterm turnout rate since 1914.
“On every measure of citizen engagement, we are firing on all cylinders,’’ he said.
In a Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey published this week, 85% of Republicans and 85% of Democrats rated themselves at the highest levels of engagement, the Journal/NBC News survey found.
“People are anxious to vote and a lot more people are registering,” said Fantashia Baxter, 21, a first-time voter in Austin, Texas.
In Texas, a newly competitive presidential battleground where mail-in ballots are more tightly restricted than many other states, Gov. Greg Abbott added an extra week of early voting in the face of the pandemic, for a total early voting period of almost three weeks. Still, Texans rushed to the polls on the first two days, many waiting hours because they said they wanted to vote as soon as possible.
Jessica Lopez, 30, and her wife, Amanda Grantham, 53, said they always vote early, but said their concern about where the country is going this year made them vote earlier than usual.
“The political climate of where we are as a nation is more pressing,” Ms. Lopez said outside an East Austin early voting location. “It’s nice to just know you have it done. There’s a sense of urgency.”
In Harris County, the third-largest county in the U.S., which includes Houston, more than 348,000 people voted in the first three days of early voting and 50,600 absentee ballots were returned. That is nearly 30% of the 1.3 million people who voted there total in 2016. Other counties across the state also broke voting records in the first days of early voting.
High interest in the election is also increasing the temperature of a highly polarized electorate. Things got physical at one early voting location in Wake Forest, N.C., on Friday. Republican poll observer Gary Pendleton said in a phone interview that he pushed an election worker, who, he said, didn’t let him enter the building to observe before polls opened.
“I took my hands and pushed him back about a foot,” said Mr. Pendleton, a former state legislator, citing coronavirus concerns. “He’s supposed to be 6 feet from me,” he added later.
Mr. Pendleton was charged with assault and trespassing, said Eric Curry, spokesman for the Wake County Sheriff’s Office. Wake County elections director Gary Sims said poll workers aren’t allowed to enter locations early, but some election workers and poll observers may not have understood that initially.
Polling supports the idea that Mr. Biden is on track to run up the score in many states in early voting, with Mr. Trump drawing the greater share of voters on Election Day.
In the WSJ/NBC News poll this week, nearly 60% of voters said they had already voted or planned to vote early by mail or in person. Mr. Biden led among that group by 39 percentage points. Among the 37% who said they would vote on Election Day, Mr. Trump led by 34 percentage points.
Biden campaign officials say they expected higher turnout this year based on higher Democratic voting and registration rates in 2018. The campaign months ago began adjusting its get-out-the-vote and advertising efforts in anticipation of higher rates of early voting, which they say is paying off as Democrats are leading in early ballot returns in several key states.
Becca Siegel, chief analytics officer for the Biden campaign, said more Democrats returning their ballots sooner than in past elections is freeing up staff and volunteers to target their efforts elsewhere.
As their supporters cast ballots and are checked off state rolls, “we can go talk to other people, and we can go talk to lower-propensity voters who we might not have otherwise been able to talk to,” she said.
The Trump campaign is relying on its ground game and data operation built out over the past four years to turn out supporters, with a particular emphasis on those who didn’t vote in 2016.
The campaign declined to say how many supporters it has identified who fit into that group, but a senior official pointed to recent rally crowds in Johnstown, Pa., and Greenville, N.C., where the campaign’s data-collection operation found about a quarter of attendees didn’t vote in 2016. The campaign also sees Republican voter registration gains in states such as Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Florida as signs the president is on pace to improve on 2016 performance in those states.
“We feel good about where we stand from a turnout perspective,” said Nick Trainer, director of battleground strategy for the Trump campaign.
—Aaron Zitner, Elizabeth Findell, Alexa Corse contributed to this article.
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