This year, Americans are voting early and often.
As of Friday morning, at least 29 million people had cast votes nationwide, according to the University of Florida's United States Elections Project. Some states will continue early voting through the weekend, but the current figure is already substantially higher than the 27 million early votes that were cast nationwide in 2014, the last major midterm election.
Voters in 27 states plus the District of Columbia have exceeded the 2014 early voting numbers, according to Michael McDonald, who directs Florida's Elections Project. In Texas, more people have voted early than the number of Texans who voted in the 2014 midterms -- including Election Day. Nevada, which holds its last day of early voting today, is also expected to exceed its total 2014 turnout by the end of the day. (Many states are days behind in posting their vote totals, including a few that haven't posted any numbers at all.)
In Florida, more than 4 million citizens have already voted. "Florida Man and Florida Woman are crushing this voting thing like it was a Natty Light can run over by a monster truck," tweeted Democratic consultant Steve Schale.
Most states now allow various forms of early in-person, mail or "no-excuse" absentee voting. While early voting could merely be "cannibalizing" voters who would otherwise have voted next Tuesday, there are some signs of increased voter interest this year. Turnout was much higher in primaries than in 2014, up 64 percent among Democrats and 22 percent among Republicans.
"Both Democratic and Republican voters are telling pollsters that they are enthusiastic to vote," says Barry Burden, who directs the University of Wisconsin Election Research Center. "Turnout is all but certain to be higher in 2018 than in 2014."
But that's a low bar, as Burden notes. Turnout in 2014 was the lowest in any election dating back to World War II.
Still, the numbers so far this year are impressive. Roughly a million people have already cast votes who had not voted before. In Louisiana, more people have voted early than in any prior election, except for 2016.
Is Early Voting Better for Democrats or Republicans?
For pollsters trying to read the tea leaves about what this year's increased early turnout means for candidates, there are signs for optimism on both sides.
Vote totals are surging among some groups that generally favor Democrats. Early voting among African-Americans has nearly tripled in Texas and Pennsylvania, nearly quadrupled in Nevada and is up 133 percent in Georgia, according to TargetSmart, a Democratic firm. The number of votes cast by citizens under 30 has increased more than 400 percent in Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Texas.
But voting among seniors, who tend to vote more Republican, is also up -- 93 percent in Pennsylvania, 84 percent in Texas and 89 percent in Georgia. Their growth hasn't been as dramatic as among the young, but they're building from a larger base and continue to make up a much larger share of the total electorate.
In Florida, youth turnout has doubled, compared to a 41 percent increase among seniors. Black turnout and Hispanic turnout have also doubled. Yet Republicans have cast slightly more ballots than Democrats to this point, meaning the latter party has to hope more independents are supporting its candidates.
Context is everything. Democrats have cast only 700 more votes than Republicans in Washoe County, Nev., which includes Reno, but the GOP needs strong turnout there to overcome the Democratic advantage in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas.
"Washoe is going to be a wash, which is very bad for the GOP," tweeted Jon Ralston, editor of the Nevada Independent.
Statewide, Nevada Democrats have the lead in turnout by about 15,000 votes, or just under 3 percent. "That's not huge, but it means that indies need to be breaking for the GOP by double digits, or there must be severe Dem base bleeding for Dean Heller and Adam Laxalt to win," he writes, referring, respectively, to the GOP nominees for U.S. Senate and governor.
The most tired cliche in politics is that "it all comes down to turnout." Fewer voters split their tickets than was true a couple of decades ago. It's getting late for early voting, but both parties are counting on their supporters to come out between now and next Tuesday for a midterm where overall voting looks like it will be higher than normal.
Republicans scored historic gains in the last two midterm elections, thanks to stronger turnout among their supporters than Democrats. The GOP may lose that advantage this year.
"Based on participation in special elections and primaries this year, plus the general tendency of the president's party to suffer in midterm elections, we should expect turnout among Democrats to be higher than among Republicans," says Burden, of the University of Wisconsin.
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