Early-voting numbers: U.S. has hit record early turnout

Early-voting counts show a record level of civic participation before Election Day. The tens of millions of ballots already cast show highly enthusiastic voters are making sure their votes are counted amid a pandemic.

Democrats hope this energy leads to a decisive victory on Nov. 3. Registered Democrats are outvoting Republicans by a large margin in states that provide partisan breakdowns of early ballots. Republicans, however, are more likely to tell pollsters they intend to vote in person, and the GOP is counting on an overwhelming share of the Election Day vote going to Trump.

Voting before Election Day has been expanded this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, an option that more than 60 percent of registered voters want, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll in September.

More voters than ever before can vote by mail this election. While some western states have long conducted their elections by mail, others, such as New Hampshire, are allowing all voters to cast ballots by mail for the first time. Several key states — such as Wisconsin, Arizona and Iowa — greatly expanded mail-in voting, bringing to 12 the number of states that now mail absentee applications to everyone registered.

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By the end of September, requests for absentee ballots had already surpassed 2016 levels in nearly every state. In 10 states, all voters are being sent a mail-in ballot automatically.

Voters are also taking advantage of in-person early voting, with a record-breaking number showing up on the first day of early voting in some states. This is Virginia’s first election with early voting, a change made after Democrats assumed control of the state House and Senate last fall. A handful of states expanded early voting in response to the pandemic, including Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott (R) extended it by a week.

This year’s general election follows high turnout in the primaries, including in battlegrounds such as Wisconsin, despite many races being held after the presidential candidates were decided and during the pandemic. And it comes two years after 2018 shattered turnout records for a midterm.

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The critical question for Democrats is whether these 2020 early ballots are additional voters or just people who would have voted on Election Day anyway.

For states where early ballots can be matched against a voter file, roughly 1 in 5 votes have come from someone who did not cast a ballot four years ago in the same state.

These new voters — who may have moved to a new state, turned 18 or just sat out the last presidential election — will probably play a pivotal role in choosing the next president.

[How turnout and swing voters could get Trump or Biden to 270]

Even with so many ballots already cast, it’s not definitive that unprecedented early voting will translate into voter turnout to exceed the historically high number of votes cast in 2016: 139 million. It’s possible that when the dust settles after Nov. 3, the number of Americans who voted will be similar to numbers in previous presidential elections, though they used different methods.

One thing is clear through: Despite weeks of campaigning and news still to come, the election is actually well underway. A large share of Americans have not just made up their minds — they have sealed in their vote.


Oct. 20, 5:55 p.m.: Due to a data provider error, in-person early vote totals were being doubled in North Carolina and Virginia, inflating the states' overall count.

About this story

Early-voting data for this election is sourced from the Associated Press and L2 Political, which compile the data from state and local election offices. Historical early-voting data is from the United States Elections Project. Voter data from L2 Political was used to calculate the proportion of 2020 voters who did not vote in the 2016 election in the same state. Decision Desk HQ provided data for the equivalent 2016 voter comparison.

Brittany Renee Mayes joined The Washington Post as a graphics reporter in June 2018. She previously worked at NPR on the visuals team as a news applications developer.
Kate Rabinowitz is a graphics reporter at The Washington Post. She previously worked at Propublica. She joined The Post in 2018.