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Early voting shows record surge in first week, with Democrats outpacing Republicans in historic shift

Rob O’Dell Arizona Republic

(CNT) City News And Talk #arizona

Ballots returned during the first week of early voting in Arizona surged nearly 100% in the state’s three most-populous counties compared to 2018, with trends appearing to favor Democratic candidates, data obtained by The Arizona Republic shows. 

Early voting surged 92% in Pima County from 2018, and 88% in Pinal County, according to county recorder offices’ data on the first week of ballot returns. Compared with the last presidential election, in 2016, Pima’s numbers rose 56%, while Pinal’s early vote totals jumped 132%.

In Maricopa County, ballots processed by the Recorder’s Office increased 116% in the first week of early voting compared with 2018 and 96% compared with 2016. Processed ballots have been returned and verified to have come from the right voter. The second week of ballot processing shows similar increases, according to the Recorder’s Office.

“We’ve seen historic numbers of ballots returned,” said Megan Gilbertson, communications director for the Maricopa County elections department.

Not only are more ballots being returned via mail, more ballots are being dropped off at voting centers and more people are voting in person than ever before, Gilbertson said.

To date, about 25,000 people have voted in person, she said, compared with only 9,000 at this point in 2016. Between 2,000 and 3,000 people a day are voting at one of the county’s seven in-person voting locations. 

Starting Thursday, there will be 48 in-person early voting centers throughout Maricopa County, Gilbertson said. The sites are listed at locations.maricopa.vote.

In a shift from previous years, Maricopa County Democrats have opened a large lead over Republicans in early ballot returns. Through Oct. 19, nearly 281,000 Democrats turned in ballots compared with 218,000 from Republicans, and nearly 150,000 from independents and voters not affiliated with a political party.

“Historically, it has been just the opposite,” said Republican pollster Chuck Coughlin, president of High Ground. “Historically, it has been: Republicans return early and Democrats return later.”

Coughlin estimated that in Maricopa County through Oct. 16, Democrats’ early ballots were up 8.5 percentage points from typical early ballot returns and Republicans were 9.5 percentage points lower than normal.

Coughlin suggested the parties’ different reactions to President Donald Trump might be driving Democrats’ surge and Republicans’ underperformance in early voting. 

Coughlin said Democrats and independents may have rushed to send in their ballots because of concern over the Trump administration’s changes to the U.S. Postal Service and Trump’s threats to slow down mail delivery. Republicans, meanwhile, may have heeded Trump’s claims that voting by mail is fraudulent and opted to physically deliver their ballots to the polls, Coughlin said. 

“He told Republicans ‘don’t trust the mail,’ so they’re holding onto their ballots,” Coughlin said. “Democrats, conversely, are probably panicked.”

But, overall, the numbers show huge enthusiasm this year among Democratic voters.

“The joke over here has been the Democrats finally discovered the magic turnout machine: It’s Donald Trump,” Coughlin said. “He’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

n another promising sign for Democrats, voters who are not regular voters are returning ballots this year, Coughlin said. 

Coughlin found that 42.3% of Democrats who turned in early ballots had eithernot voted or voted in only oneof the past three elections. The number of independents casting ballots who were infrequent voters was 30%, while 27.7% of Republicans had voted in only one of the last three general elections or had not voted at all. 

Those numbers are “significantly different” than previous years and these nontraditional voters were not part of the election model that High Ground built to forecast returns and election results.

“We don’t even poll those people,” Coughlin said, noting that the firm typically polls people who voted in two or three of the last three elections. “We don’t call low-efficacy voters because we don’t believe they show up. … Historically, they don’t show up. So this kind of behavior, with our model, changes the outcome.”

The increased enthusiasm could lead to record voter turnout, Coughlin said.

He added that he is confident Republicans will catch up. But the increase in early votes by Democrats helps them because it establishes a margin that is harder to make up later, he said. 

“The only thing you run out of in elections is time, and the clock is ticking,” Coughlin said.

In addition, early voting allows campaigns to stop directing their efforts toward those who have already voted and focus on those who haven’t returned their ballots.

“They can eliminate those people from the ‘get out the vote’ effort,” Coughlin said. “Once somebody returns their ballot, you don’t have to call them anymore. You don’t have to knock on their door anymore. … A good campaign will know that and will focus its resources elsewhere.” 

Democratic strategist Chad Campbell, a senior vice president at Strategies 360, said Democrats and many independents are motivated to vote for the Biden/Harris ticket and because “they are sick of the Trump administration.”

He said enthusiasm to vote against Trump has accelerated the electoral impact of demographic changes that have been occurring in Arizona for a while: more younger voters, more participation by Latino voters, and new residents who are not retirees and instead moved to the state to work and raise families.

“You have a changing demographic and then you have a president that has just really quickened the pace of that,” he said. “So that’s what we’re seeing now, I believe, in these returns. 

“And there’s a long way to go. And I think Republicans will start catching up as we start to see these numbers continue. But I think the numbers speak for themselves in terms of the Democratic enthusiasm.”

Campbell said there’s enthusiasm among the base in both parties, and he doubts there are many truly undecided voters remaining. But an important question, he said, is whether moderate Republicans and center-right independents who don’t like Trump are going to sit out the election.

“That’s a big question that remains to be answered,” he said.

The typical voter-participation gap between the parties has favored Republicans by 6 to 7 percentage points, Campbell said. However, Campbell said Democratic returns so far may push that down to 3 or 4 percentage points.

That would spell trouble for the Republicans because he expects independents to favor the Democrats this cycle, especially among suburban women, he said. 

“There’s no data that doesn’t show Democrats breaking more to independents this cycle,” Campbell said. 

A small voting advantage for Republicans is “foretelling a pretty big change in Arizona politically,” he said.  “And if it gets below three points … I would guess you are looking at a doomsday scenario for them.”