Brynn Anderson / AP
Early turnout continues to shake records as the sky-high voter enthusiasm matches the realities of the creaky democratic machinery of the United States amid a pandemic. That means long queues in some places, administrative errors with some postal ballot papers, but a system that works overall according to experts.
“Despite some of these concerns, things are going pretty well at this point,” said former Deputy Postmaster General Ronald Stroman, speaking specifically about expanding postal voting.
More than 26 million people voted on Saturday, according to the US Elections Project, a turnout database operated by political scientist Michael McDonald of the University of Florida. That is more than six times the number of votes cast at the same time in 2016.
There are still more than two weeks to election day, but here are some takeaways from the votes already cast.
Democrats come into force
Poll data has suggested for months that Democrats intended to vote at much higher rates sooner than Republicans, who responded to President Trump’s nearly constant false claims that voting through the mail would lead to widespread fraud.
We are now getting evidence from actual voting behavior to confirm these polls.
Democrats cast about 53% of the early votes, compared with 36% of Republicans, according to predictive analysis by data firm TargetSmart who used voter data beyond party registration to project voter turnout trends.
The early voters also tend to get older. According to a TargetSmart analysis, voters aged 50 and over account for more than 70% of the votes cast. Compared to the 2016 election, hundreds of thousands more young people had voted by that point in October, but they still make up a smaller proportion of the total than they did then.
African American voters in particular make up a larger proportion of early voters than in 2016. According to Targetsmart’s analysis, more than six times as many African American voters voted early than at the same time in the last presidential election.
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Confidence has sunk
President Trump’s rhetoric has also had an impact on how confident people are about the electoral process as election day approaches.
Overall, the percentage of registered voters who say US elections will be well managed this year has fallen significantly over the past two years, from 81% in October 2018 to 62% this year. This is according to a recently published survey by Pew Research.
That decline is being driven by Trump supporters, half of whom now say they don’t believe elections are well managed. More than half also say that postal votes are not counted correctly.
These trends are worrying voting experts who say that trusting the fundamentals of voting mechanics is key to making the results accepted as legitimate.
“If significant parts of the public do not believe that the results of our elections are legitimate, then you literally have a divided country,” said Eddie Perez, campaign expert at the OSET Institute. “I don’t mean that rhetorically. You literally have a divided country where the question of a peaceful transfer of power is really a problem.”
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Long lines, technical problems in some areas
When voting began last week in states like Georgia and Texas, long lines quickly formed at some polling stations, and some voters waited long hours before casting a ballot.
According to official information, computer problems played a large role in these delays.
In Georgia, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said the registry, where people were checked in for an early vote, was bogged down with traffic.
“When you look at the amount of information that’s flowing right now, it’s like everyone jumping on I-285 in the morning and sometimes you have to postpone rush hour,” he said, according to Stephen Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting. “Our suppliers have been working with our staff to make sure we are considering some other tweaks and we should probably do so by the end of this week.”
In Fort Bend County, Texas, a check-in machine failure has closed at least four counties there.
“I openly think it’s a form of voter suppression,” one voter named Renee told Houston Public Media’s Elizabeth Trovall after waiting in line for nearly four hours to vote. “There is no way we could break down on the first day of the early voting. No way … I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Election officials and pundits have warned throughout the summer that longer queues were likely to plague some polling stations this fall as jurisdictions needed to consolidate polling stations and hire more poll workers.
Another factor: social distancing efforts can make even relatively short lines appear much longer.
But lines were the exception, not the rule, across the country. And there is also optimism that districts struggling with lines will gradually wear off as early voting continues.
For example, Gwinnett County, Georgia, reported long waits in a number of counties earlier this week, but as of Friday afternoon, the county’s online waiting tracker showed no more than 90 minutes of waiting time.
“A lot of people are passionate about this election,” said Perez. “And so it is fair that the demand for people to get there right away and cast their vote is very high. The volumes you see on the first day of the early voting are likely to decrease somewhat later in this period.” ” “”
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More mail, more problems
States have rapidly stepped up their email voting efforts to serve the 40% of voters who now say they plan to vote this way.
However, as usage increases, there is a corresponding increase in administrative errors. Reports appear on a seemingly daily daily basis of another series of ballot papers that went to voters with an error.
Last week in Allegheny County, Penn. announced that the company responsible for printing and mailing ballot papers incorrectly sent the wrong ballot papers to nearly 29,000 voters. Last month, similar clerical problems affected the postal voting of thousands of voters in Ohio and New York.
“In less than three weeks we have to make sure that our electoral system is a system that voters can trust,” said Dave Voye, election officer for Allegheny County, on Wednesday, as Lucy Perkins of the WESA reported. “This has been a failure for our contractor and affects too many of our constituents.”
The county has added a search feature to its website that will allow voters to see if they are affected, and all voters will receive new ballots.
Stroman, the former deputy postmaster general who is now a senior fellow with the Democracy Fund, said it was important to remember that in all of these cases officials caught their mistakes with enough time to correct them. Officials have also put security in place to ensure no one votes twice.
“I think so far what we’re seeing are pretty much the normal mistakes made worse by a global pandemic,” Stroman said.
President Trump has tried to use these types of problems as evidence that the entire postal voting system is in some way flawed or fraudulent.
But problems like this come up with every election, says Kathleen Hale, an election administration expert at Auburn University, and they’re not a sign of anything shameful or broken.
“A significant part of the process is done by humans,” said Hale. “And they’re not perfect.”