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Democrats outpace Republicans in early voting in Arizona for first time with less than 1 week until Election Day

Rob O’Dell Arizona Republic

(CNT) City News Talk #arizona

With a week remaining, early ballots returned by Democratic voters are outpacing Republican ballots for thefirst time in modern Arizona history this close to Election Day, leaving the GOP with a lot of ground to make up in the closing days of the election.

Of the 1.17 million ballots returned in Maricopa County through Monday, 457,000, or 39%, were from Democrats; 422,000, or 36%, were from Republicans; and 285,000, or 24%, were from independent voters and those not designating a party.

Maricopa County has processed 1.2 million ballots through Tuesday — meaning the voter’s signature has been verified. That almost equals the 1.25 million total early ballots cast in 2016, said Megan Gilbertson, spokeswoman for the Maricopa County Elections Department.

The difference between the number of early ballots returned and the number processed is due to a one-day lag in the reporting of returned ballots.

The county has already surpassed the 2018 total for early voting. 

Maricopa County Democrats have never outpaced Republicans in early voting so close to Election Day. 

Election Day is now close enough that county recorders are advising Arizona voters to drop off their ballots at collection sites rather than send them through the mail. Ballots that arrive after Election Day won’t be counted.

If Democrats’ early voting trend continues it would mark a historic shift in the Arizona electorate, said Republican pollster Chuck Coughlin, president of HighGround. The Democratic Party has placed a big emphasis this year on getting its voters to return their ballots in the first and second weeks of early voting.

“It’s given them a big advantage that they have never had before,” he said. “The question is, does it last? Democrats are continuing to outperform historical models and Republicans are underperforming, but catching up. … But they are still way behind.”

Early ballot returns don’t show who voters are supporting, they only show party affiliation. But early ballot returns can help model what will happen on Election Day, he said. 

Even if Republicans close the gap and draw even with Democrats before Election Day, that won’t bode well for the party because it historically has had a 6-percentage point advantage in voters who return ballots. HighGround had predicted Republicans’ advantage would shrink to 3 percentage points this year after factoring in enthusiasm among Democrats, but early ballot returns are challenging that. 

“If it’s even, it’s an advantage for Democrats,” Coughlin said.

Independents, which make up 24% of the early returns so far, typically break the way of the larger electorate, he said. This year, that would mean they likely lean Democratic. 

HighGround estimates voters may cast 500,000 more ballots in this year’s election than in 2016. Arizona is likely to hit 3 million voters for the first time and couldpotentially eclipse 1980’s record turnout of 80.1%, according to HighGround estimates.

President Donald Trump won Arizona in 2016 by 91,000 votes.

Coughlin said Republican candidates should be begging their voters to turn in their early ballots, adding that likely is part of what prompted Trump’s decision to visit Arizona again this week.

At this point in a race, Coughlin said he looks at early ballot returns more closely than polling because “it’s an incontrovertible fact who is voting.” At this point, early ballots are “more reliable than polls,” he said.

Sam Almy, a data analyst who tracks early ballots for Democratic digital media firm Saguaro Strategies, said statewide Democrats are up 90,000 voters over Republicans out of nearly 1.86 million ballots returned. 

Almy said Democrats have never had a lead like this a week before Election Day. 

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm on the Democratic side,” Almy said. “The president is a turnout machine. The Democrats are not very keen on … President Trump.”

In addition, Almy said, there is a competitive U.S. Senate race, offering Democrats a chance to win their second Senate seat in two years, after not winning a Senate race in Arizona since 1988. 

“Certainly having those top-of-the-ticket races with lots of funding coming into Arizona is motivating the Democratic side,” he said.  

He said Democrats and Republicans could be close to even in early ballots going into Election Day. But that would be an advantage for Democrats, because in 2016 Democratic ballots trailed Republican ballots by 100,000 going into Election Day. 

He said there are a lot of Republican votes still out there, and some of the national rhetoric around early voting may have impacted their behavior — causing them to turn out at the polls or drop off their early ballots instead of mailing them.

That would mean a more even party distribution of Election Day ballots, which often trend Democratic, he said.

Almy pointed out that two years ago both Democratic U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and Secretary of State Katie Hobbs were trailing in their races when the first votes came in on election night — reflecting tallies from early voting — but took the lead once more ballots from Election Day were counted. 

Almy said he expects between 30% and 35% of the overall vote to come on Election Day, both from those voting at the polls and those dropping off early ballots there.

Another encouraging sign for Democrats from early ballot returns, he said, is that voters who have voted in only one or two of the last four elections are turning out in larger numbers. Democrats have attracted about 50,000 more voters who only voted in one or two of the last four elections, while Republican and independents are roughly even with previous years, Almy said.

One of the groups working to turn out new voters is Mi Familia Vota, which has been encouraging participation by Latino voters for 15 years in Arizona and got a boost after SB 1070, the “show me your papers law,” passed in 2010. 

“Who knew that 10 years after SB 1070 that we were going to be a battleground state,” said Eduardo Sainz, Mi Familia Vota’s Arizona state director.

With partners in their coalition, Mi Familia Vota was able to register 200,000 new voters for this year’s election, Sainz said. 

“Our goal is to mobilize one million voters for the election,” Sainz said. “We are doing that by … knocking on doors, making phone calls, text messages. We also launched a $1.4 million campaign for Spanish-language media advertisements on TV, radio and digital.”

Mi Familia Vota was one of the groups that because of the impact of the pandemic sued to extend the state’s voter registration deadline, which allowed 35,000 new voters to get on the rolls, Sainz said.

The group mainly focused on signing up people to the permanent early voter list. Trump’s questioning of the validity of voting by mail is akin to voter suppression, Sainz said. 

“We want to make sure that access to our democracy is easy,” Sainz said. “And we know that COVID and the Trump administration have been the two biggest barriers when it comes to Latinos participating this cycle.”

Mi Familia Vota is getting data to see who has returned their ballots to focus their resources on those that have not yet returned ballots.

Although Trump is a key driver of the turnout effort, Sainz said Mi Familia Vota is not just looking at the top of the ticket. The group is also focused on flipping the Legislature from Republican to Democratic control because of the Republican Legislature’s inadequate funding of public schools, Sainz said. 

“We want to make sure that once we elect individuals into office they are prioritizing the working families’ agenda and not corporations,” he said.