Brynn Anderson / AP
Early turnout continues to break records as sky-high voter enthusiasm meets the realities of the United States’ squeaky democracy during a pandemic. That means long lines in some places, administrative errors with some mail polls, but a system that works generally according to experts.
“Despite some of these concerns, things are going reasonably well at this point,” said former deputy postmaster General Ronald Stroman, who specifically spoke about expanding the vote by mail.
More than 26 million people have voted since Saturday, according to the U.S. Election Project, a database for election tracking operated by University of Florida political scientist Michael McDonald. That is more than six times the number of votes cast by the same point in 2016.
While there are still more than two weeks left until Election Day, there are some takeaways from the votes already cast.
Democrats come into force
Voting data has for several months shown that Democrats intended to vote earlier at much higher rates than Republicans, who responded to President Trump’s almost constant false claims that postal voting would lead to widespread fraud.
We now have evidence from actual voting behavior that confirms these polls.
Democrats have cast about 53% of the early vote, according to a predictive analysis by computer company TargetSmart, which uses voter data in addition to party registration for project participation trends compared to 36% of Republicans.
Early voters also tend to get older. Voters aged 50 and over make up more than 70% of the votes cast according to the TargetSmart analysis. Hundreds of thousands more young people have voted at this time in October compared to the 2016 election, but they still make up a lower proportion of the total than they did at the time.
In particular, African-American voters make up a larger proportion of early voters than in 2016. More than six times as many African-American voters voted early than they had at the same time in the last presidential election, according to Targetsmart’s analysis.
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Confidence is down
President Trump’s rhetoric has also affected how confident people feel about the election process as election day approaches.
Overall, the proportion of registered voters who say elections in the U.S. will be well conducted this year has dropped markedly over the past two years, from 81% in October 2018 to 62% this year, according to a newly released Pew Research poll. .
This fall is driven by Trump supporters, half of whom now say they do not believe the election will be administered well. More than half also say they think absent ballots are not counted correctly.
These trends worry polling experts, who say that trust in nuts and bolts in election mechanics is the key to accepting results as legitimate.
“If significant sections of the public do not trust that the outcome of our election is legitimate, then you are literally in a divided country,” said Eddie Perez, an election expert at the OSET Institute. “I do not mean that rhetorically. You have literally a divided country where the issue of a peaceful transfer of power is really a problem.”
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Long queues, technical problems in some areas
When early voting began in states like Georgia and Texas last week, long lines quickly formed at some polling stations, with some voters waiting in line for many hours before voting.
Computer issues played a major role in these delays, according to officials.
In Georgia, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said the registry used to check people in for early voting was bound by such a large amount of traffic.
“If you look at the amount of information that just flows, it’s like everyone is jumping on I-285 in the morning, and sometimes you have to shift the rush hour,” he said, according to Georgia Public Broadcasts Stephen Fowler. “Our suppliers have been working on it with our staff to make sure we look at some other optimizations, and we probably should have done that by the end of this week.”
In Fort Bend County, Texas, a check-in machine failure closed at least four areas there.
“I honestly think it’s a form of overthrow,” said a voter named Renee to Houston Public Media’s Elizabeth Trovall, after waiting in line to vote for nearly four hours. “There’s no way there’s going to be a mistake on the first day of early voting. No way … I’ve just never seen anything like it before.”
Electoral officials and experts have been warning all summer that some personal polling stations are likely to be plagued by longer lines in the fall, as jurisdictions have had to consolidate polling stations and recruit more polling workers.
Another factor: social distance effort can make even relatively short lines work much longer.
But lines have been the exception all over the country, not the rule. And there is also optimism that areas that have struggled with lines will start to see them ease as early voting continues.
Gwinnett County, Ga., For example, reported long waiting times earlier in the week at a number of areas, but by Friday afternoon, the county’s online waiting lane showed no waiting time longer than 90 minutes.
“A lot of people are passionate about running this election,” Perez said. “And so it is fitting that there is a lot of bottled demand for people to get there right away and get their vote. The volumes you see on the very first day of the early vote are likely to decrease less later in the period. “
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More mail, more problems
States have rapidly increased their attempts to vote by mail to serve the 40% of voters who now say they plan to vote that way.
But with an increase in usage also comes a corresponding increase in administrative errors. Reports apparently pop up daily about another batch of ballots going out to voters with some sort of error.
Last week Allegheny County, Penn. announced that the company that handles the printing and sending of ballot papers had mistakenly sent nearly 29,000 voters the wrong ballot papers. Last month, similar clerical issues affected the postal votes of thousands of voters in Ohio and New York.
“With just under three weeks left, it is imperative that we ensure that our electoral system is one that voters can trust,” Allegheny County Chief Electoral Officer Dave Voye said Wednesday, as WESA’s Lucy Perkins reported. “This was a failure on behalf of our contractor and is affecting too many of our constituents.”
The county added a search feature to its site so voters can check if they were one of those affected, and it will also send all voters new votes.
Stroman, the former deputy postmaster-general who is now a senior comrade in the Democracy Fund, said it is important to remember that in all these cases, officials caught their mistakes with enough time to correct them. Officials also have safeguards in place to ensure that no one votes twice.
“I think at this point, what we are seeing is pretty much the normal mistakes, exacerbated by a global pandemic,” Stroman said.
President Trump has tried to use this kind of problem as proof that the whole system of voting for the post is flawed or fraudulent in some way.
But these kinds of questions happen every election, says Kathleen Hale, an expert on election administration at Auburn University, and they are not signs of anything malicious or broken.
“A significant portion of the process is performed by humans,” Hale said. “And they are not perfect.”