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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How Absentee Voting Saved America

Nathaniel Rakich and Jasmin Mithani explain “What Absentee Voting Looked Like In All 50 States: It was historically popular — and historically Democratic” at FiveThirtyEight. As Rakich and Mithani write,

According to preliminary findings from the 2020 Survey on the Performance of American Elections, a poll of 18,200 registered voters run by MIT political scientist Charles Stewart III, 46 percent of 2020 voters voted by mail or absentee — up from 21 percent in 2016, which at the time was considered high. Only 28 percent of people reported voting on Election Day — less than half of the 60 percent who did so in 2016. In-person early voting also reached a modern high (26 percent), although the change from 2016 (when it was 19 percent) was less dramatic.

Of course, the primary reason for the surge in absentee voting was the Covid-19 pandemic. The turnout was likely boosted by Trump’s alarming denial and incompetence in addressing the pandemic as it spiked upward across the nation.

And it was a broad increase, with few exceptions, across the 50 states. As Rakich and Mithani note,

….According to the SPAE, 47 states and the District of Columbia saw their rates of mail voting rise from 2016 to 2020. The only exceptions were the three states that have held predominantly mail elections for years: Colorado, Oregon and Washington. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the biggest spikes in mail voting occurred in places that went the furthest to encourage mail voting (i.e., those that automatically sent every registered voter a ballot), especially those with little history of mail voting prior to 2020. These include New Jersey (where only 7 percent of voters voted by mail in 2016, but 86 percent did so in 2020), the District of Columbia (12 percent in 2016 versus 70 percent in 2020) and Vermont (17 percent in 2016 versus 72 percent in 2020).

By contrast, the five states that clung to the requirement that voters provide a non-pandemic-related excuse in order to vote by mail (Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas) saw some of the smallest increases. For example, Texas’s rate of mail voting in 2020 was only 11 percent (barely changed from 7 percent in 2016), while Mississippi’s was only 10 percent (just a tad higher than the 4 percent in 2016).

Here is FiveThirtyEight’s graphic display of the absentee voting increase in the states:

Rakich and Mithani add that “If we had data for all 50 states, we would likely see Trump winning the Election Day vote in almost all of them and Biden winning the absentee vote in almost all of them….the fact that these votes were so Democratic is very likely due to Trump himself. By casting doubt on the security of mail ballots, he all but ensured that most of his voters would cast their votes using traditional methods, leaving the pool of absentee ballots strikingly — but not surprisingly — blue.”

They note further that ” Some states are thinking about making their expansions of vote-by-mail permanent, while other states have shown little interest” and they warn, “still others are even considering bills to restrict absentee voting.” Voter asuppression is what Republicans do. Yet absentee voting is far easier on state budgets and remains highly popular with voters. Democrats should be prepared in all the battleground states for an extended fight over absentee voting — if they want to keep it.

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