The popularity of voting by mail has exploded during the coronavirus pandemic. In new CNN/SSRS polling from Arizona, Florida and Michigan, you see that at least 40% of voters in each state say they’ll vote by mail (or via absentee, a type of voting by mail). A previous Fox News poll found 35% of voters nationally said they would. In 2016, it was 24%.
Yet over the past few months, President Donald Trump has crusaded to cast doubt on voting by mail. Many of those are false charges, including the idea that there is massive fraud, that have been debunked.
Still, it’s pretty clear looking at the CNN polling data and figures from boards of elections that Trump likely has caused a rift in who is going to vote by mail.
Mainly, Democrats are going to cast a lot more votes by mail than Republicans.
You see this well in our latest polls from Arizona, Florida and Michigan. In each state, at least 56% of self-identified Democrats say they’re going to cast a vote by mail. In each state, Democrats are at least 30 points more likely to say they’ll vote by mail than Republicans.
Traditionally, there has been little difference in the partisan breakdown in who votes by mail, so this is a new phenomenon.
Perhaps as interesting is we’re seeing some traditional vote-by-mail divides be eliminated in our data. Usually, older people are those who vote by mail in larger numbers. In our data, those under the age of 45 seem about as likely to say they’ll vote by mail as those 45 years and older in an average across Arizona, Florida and Michigan.
One reason that the age divide is closing is that younger people are more likely to be Democrats. And with Trump arguing against voting by mail, it shouldn’t be surprising that we’re seeing changes in the types of people who will cast a ballot by mail.
Now, I should note that saying you’re going to cast a ballot by mail and actually doing so may end up being two different things. Many Democrats may be saying they’ll vote by mail just because they want to register disapproval with Trump. Likewise, many Republicans may say they’ll vote in-person to register approval of him.
As Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray and Edison Research’s Joe Lenski have noted, the gaps we’ve been seeing between Democrats and Republicans voting by mail in primaries hasn’t been nearly as large as some polling data may have suggested.
Indeed, you can look at Florida and potentially see a similar situation playing out. Democrats have been building an edge in the number of voters who will be requesting ballots by mail. The margin has been creeping up in recent weeks, though it’s only about a fourth as large as you would expect looking at the polling data.
Regardless of what data set you look at, however, Democrats do look like they’ll vote more by mail than Republicans. That is something that usually doesn’t happen.
Still, in terms of the outcome, it’s unclear how this partisan divide in voting by mail will shift it.
If Democrats are able to get more untraditional voters involved in the process because of vote by mail, it could be good for them. If Democrats are merely able to bank more votes before Election Day than Republicans, it could still be good for them. If there is a surge of coronavirus cases in a state, Republicans may find some of their voters unwilling to vote on Election Day, after having passed up the possibility of voting by mail.
It’s possible more voting by mail could end up making no difference in the outcome. Democrats may simply be shifting some of their voters to vote by mail who have usually voted in-person.
There’s even a scenario where Republicans are helped out. Mail-in votes are rejected at a higher rate (and usually most among people of color and younger voters) than in-person votes. In a close election, you could see that making a difference if more Republicans are voting in-person.
At a minimum, the higher vote-by-mail total means we’re going to have to be patient in watching votes get counted.
The primaries taught us that it will likely take time for states to count an untraditionally large amount of votes that were cast by mail. Many of the first votes to get counted were those cast on Election Day (i.e. Republican leaning ballots), so it was Democratic votes that got counted later in the process.
Don’t be surprised if come November, early counted ballots look good for Republicans in some states, but Democrats catch up as the vote count carries on.