There are still two weeks until Election Day, and one in every six California voters has already returned their ballot, a number largely influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Tuesday, a ballot tracker by consulting firm Political Data, Inc. showed nearly 4 million ballots had been returned statewide, shattering previous early voting records.
“Right now, we’re at a pace three times where we were in the 2016 general election,” said the company’s Vice President, Paul Mitchell.
Because of the pandemic, California sent every registered voter a mail-in ballot this year in an effort to reduce crowds at polling locations. Elections watchers expected a bump in early participation because of that, but the rate of early returns has been huge.
However, the majority of voters who have already returned their ballots are people who were already likely to vote this year: older voters who belong to a political party. According to the ballot tracker, two-thirds of ballots returned so far have come from voters over 50.
“We know that this sliver of the electorate is extremely motivated. Not just extremely motivated to vote, but extremely motivated to vote earlier than they ever have,” Mitchell said. “This is not yet a big surge of younger, minority, renters, students — those kinds of populations that we expect to be low-turnout.”
While 18- to 34-year-olds are California’s largest voting bloc by age, only one in 10 of those voters have so far returned their ballots.
The presidential election is expected to drive turnout for nearly every voting demographic, but Mitchell said it appears younger and more diverse voters are waiting to vote until closer to Election Day — which would track with their regular voting patterns.
“We’ve seen some data suggesting that new registrants are more interested in following the election than we’ve ever seen before,” he said. “But this is [surge] not in and of itself the actual delivery of those voters’ ballots. This is, right now, the delivery of a lot of predictable voters’ ballots.”
While there are patterns along partisan and ethnic lines, they’re less stark than the age gap in California’s early voting returns.
The ballot tracker shows 22% of registered Democrats have already voted, compared to 16% of Republicans and 14% of those affiliated with another party or no party at all.
“The fact that we’re seeing this higher Democratic participation isn’t surprising or necessarily indicative of the overall electorate, but it is new,” he said, citing President Donald Trump’s repeated and false claims that mail-in voting is less secure and fraud-ridden.
Democrats, meanwhile, have been hearing the opposite message from their party leaders.
“There’s been this thing among the most high-propensity active partisan voters” leading up to the election.” Mitchell said. “Democrats were hearing messages of, ‘You need to mail it in early, early early because the post office is being dismantled while we watch it.’ And Republicans were hearing this story of ‘You need to vote in person, in person, in person because vote-by-mail is rigged.’”
Mitchell’s data also shows slightly higher rates of White (21%) and Asian (19%) voters have returned their ballots than Black (15%) and Latino (13%) voters.
While Latinos are California’s largest ethnic group, they are less likely to vote than Californians of other ethnicities, according to a September report by the Public Policy Institute of California.
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