As you can imagine, over the past few days we’ve fielded a vast (for our small staff) number of questions about early voting, its history, and so on. One of the questions that comes up repeatedly is: how does early voting help political parties?

On the face of it, it’s a reasonable question. Paul Gronke likes to talk about the voting electorate as an apple pie. If you remove a slice of early voters, then there are that many fewer voters on Election Day. If there’s a certain slice of the electorate that is going to vote—and early voters do tend to be more committed partisans—why would the parties care when they did so?

Indeed, there are many reasons why campaigns might dislike early voting. It forces them to run a longer, more sustained endgame. Days like the Friday and Monday before Election Day become major events in their own right, requiring sustained advertising spend. Studies have not found clear turnout increases from early voting systems. And, indeed, wide dissemination of the results might induce complacency for leaders in the early vote (I suspect this is going to garner much attention in the post-election discussion). If nothing else, the old system was familiar: elected officials can reasonably be expected to be suspicious of change to a system they know well.

The first question also prompts a corollary: why have election commentators made so much of the high Democratic turnout? If Democrats are particularly enthused and excited by this election, then they might well be expected to get out and cast their votes as soon as possible. But these voters were going to turn out anyway, presumably. What does early voting add to this equation?

In part, the answer lies in targeted canvassing. Most of the states provide—with varying levels of restriction—detailed breakdowns of early voters. And I don’t mean just broad partisan or demographic trends, but individual-level voter information (typically at least name and address). If the data aren’t contained within the returns themselves, a list of voter identification numbers usually is, and this list can be compared to voter registers to obtain detailed information. North Carolina—a state we’ve been following closely—makes such data freely available on its website. Florida, too, provides extensive information about early in-person voters (though absentee data are restricted by law to registered parties).

For candidates, this is a dream come true; it turns out that one ‘in the bank’ is more valuable than it would initially seem. By turning out committed partisans early, campaigns can check them off, and then focus their get-out-the-vote efforts in the last few days on marginal and undecided voters. Campaigns have a vast machinery in place on the ground in many states, but their resources and time are still limited. Early voting allows them, essentially, to stop wasting precious time on those who have voted.

This aspect of early voting is crucial to understanding why the results so far give Barack Obama’s campaign a significant advantage. It’s not necessarily because we think the partisan ratios are a harbinger of things to come. Certainly, we don’t anticipate a 70%-30% victory (or insert your favorite exuberant prediction here). This is not Election Day writ-large, and it would be quite dangerous to make forecasts from early voting returns. That said, a large chunk of the Democratic base has now turned out in swing states like Nevada, Florida, and North Carolina—and the same cannot be said for Republicans. While the McCain campaign will be forced to spend a large part of the last few days ensuring that its base turns out in sufficient numbers, the Obama team will be able to focus its efforts on persuading and turning out valuable swing voters.

I should be clear: we’re a non-partisan academic research center, and we try to study and present all interesting aspects of early voting, regardless of the party angle. All the same, it’s very hard to spin the numbers we are seeing so far in any way that doesn’t tell a bad story for John McCain.

North Carolina’s numbers continue to look exceptionally strong for Obama this year. Turnout is up across the board, but Democrats have taken the lion’s share, seeing a 120% increase on the 2004 turnout figure. The Republican increase is closer to 80%.

The dashed lines on the right graph indicate the 2004 total early turnout for each party.

The age graphs show the same trend as we found last week: a broadly normal distribution (bell curve), with small peaks at the youngest end. The mean ages are a little lower than in Florida (about 5 years), but that’s probably to be expected given the demographic differences between the two states.

The graph for non-affiliated voters is notably different, displaying a much flatter distribution (no clear peaks or dips). It’s worth keeping in mind that this probably has more to do with the rise of independent status amongst young voters than with any great disparity in turnout. In North Carolina, while those aged over 40 overwhelmingly identify as Democrats or Republicans, the ‘under 40’ demographic is fairly equally split among Democrat, Republican and Unaffiliated. I’ll try to post some further analysis of this issue.

A quick Georgia update. The state has had huge turnout for its early in-person (“advance”) voting this year. Despite the voting period being relatively short (just one week) nearly 1.4 million in-person votes have been cast—that’s 25% of registered voters. It’s also a 100% increase on last year, when just 670,000 voters cast their ballots early.

Looking at the racial breakdown, the African-American turnout that we noted earlier in the week remains quite strong. The graph on the left shows both registered voters and ballots cast by race. Black turnout is relatively high, though it’s hard to see from this chart, so the graph on the right displays turnout as a percentage of registered voters in three racial groupings.

Graphs updated 10/29, text from 10/26.

Even states as safe as Tennessee are seeing increased levels of early voting this year. Early voting is widely available in the state, and traditionally sees high levels of use. I’ve put our graphs from 2004 underneath for comparison. The patterns of voting are very similar, but note the daily turnout increases.

(October 19th was a Sunday, by the way, and early voting locations are closed.)

ABC News is reporting a poll that shows 9% of likely voters have cast their ballots. Gary Langer (Director of Polling) walks through the breakdown, finding both regional differences (the South and West vote early) and partisan advantage (Obama is receiving a lot of these votes) that are in line with our expectations. The 9% figure sounds a little low to me given the activity we’ve seen—though Langer asserts that 34% will have voted early by this time next week.

Nevada update

A quick update from Nevada: the trend continues. Democratic early turnout is around 75% higher than Republicans’ level. As we’ve mentioned before, Clark and Washoe counties include Las Vegas and Reno, and account for nearly 90% of the state’s population.

Unlike the last graphs, I’ve included Clark County’s absentee-by-mail ballots above, which raises the overall total slightly, but doesn’t change the partisan breakdown. In-person voting is clearly the preferred early mode in the state.

Clark County Modes of Early Voting
Mode Democrat Republican Unaffiliated
Early In-Person 133,064 71,440 40,405
Absentee by Mail 15,776 17,283 5,215
Data captured on 10/28, at 11:00PM PST

Gov. Charlie Crist has issued an executive order instructing early voting locations to increase their hours from 8 to 12 per day for the remainder of the early voting period. Given the disparity in rates of early in-person voting between Democrats and Republicans, this is very likely to benefit the former. Says (Republican) Crist: “This is not a political decision. This is a people decision.”

More at the WSJ

A couple of interesting notes about Louisiana. The state is considered to be safe presidential territory for the Republicans, with Pollster currently reporting McCain up 13 points. Democratic incumbent Senator Mary Landrieu, on the other hand, has a fairly strong lead over Republican challenger John Kennedy.

So, what do the voting numbers say? Louisiana has no-excuse in-person early voting, and it appears to be taking off. In 2004, just 6.5% of the voters cast their ballots early. This year, more than 260,000 voters—9%— have so far voted. We’ve had anecdotal reports of lines up to five hours in the state, which has relatively limited provision of early voting locations (particularly in the large cities).

Despite some 1.5 million of Louisiana’s 2.9 million registered voters being affiliated with the Democrats, this party has a hard time in a state where many voters do not vote along party lines. African-American voters, however, are as reliably Democratic as in other parts of the country, and the Party has targeted its registration drive at this community. At the start of October, black voters comprised 30% of registered voters in the state, whites 65% (exactly the same proportion as their populations).

On the other hand, the impact of Hurricane Katrina introduces a further uncertainty into the vote: the exodus into neighboring states disproportionately affected African-Americans. In a state where turnout is crucial, the Landrieu campaign was maintaining an understandably conservative position in its African-American turnout models—but early voting returns give them cause for optimism. 95,000, or 36%, of the early voters are African-American, while just 161,603, or 55%, are white.

Let’s be clear: though records are being broken, early voting turnout is still likely to be comparatively low in this state. It’s much more difficult to extrapolate broad trends than in a big early voting state like North Carolina or Nevada. Certainly, this is not reason to consider conservative Louisiana unsafe for McCain. Still, it is an interesting state to watch.

Since early voting began this election cycle, and since it has become apparent that turnout among registered Democrats has been higher than among registered Republicans in some states, an important question has been raised: does public knowledge of who is voting early affect the outcome of the election?

This is an excellent question for which we, unfortunately, don’t have an answer. Yet.

There are a couple things to keep in mind, however, when searching for possible conclusions.

We do not know how individuals voted, we only know if a voter is registered Democrat or Republican. This may be an indicator of how they have or will vote, but voters do not always cast ballots for the same party with which they are registered.

This said, it is difficult to ignore the fact that Democrats in many states that allow early voting have cast more ballots than their Republican counterparts. (See EVIC’s previous posts or articles in USA Today and BBC News.) Might just knowing this, might just the impression that there have been more ballots cast for the Democratic candidate affect the outcome of the election, whether or not it is true?

A question I am sure we will ponder in the months to come…

Interesting things to report from Georgia. First, the early voting turnout has already broken previous records. In 2004, around 20% of the 3.3 million voters cast their ballots early. As of today, the state reports that 1,206,981 ballots have already been cast in this election–22% of Georgia’s registered voters. Advance voting is open in the state until Friday; I predict significant further increases.

The state also provides a limited racial breakdown for early voters. The graphs below show slightly different things. On the left, a straight breakdown of the number of votes cast by racial group. Nothing looks too surprising about this graph–white voters are overwhelmingly the dominant racial group in state.

The graph on the right, however, shows the percentage of votes cast against registered voters within each racial group. This, again, yields the interesting finding that African-Americans are voting early at higher rates that whites, in proportion to their group size. The trend continues.

Georgia is unexpectedly close this year, and it remains to be seen how good the pollsters’ “likely voter” models are.