In “Lord of the Rings,” there’s a scene where the grim-faced King Theoden of Rohan looks out over the army of orcs gathered outside his gates at Helm’s Deep. He utters a phrase that has become a popular, all-purpose meme on social media: “So it begins.”
Today, we get our chance to appropriate that line. So it begins. In our case, the context is voting in the presidential election.
Notice we didn’t say in November’s presidential election. We no longer have a singular Election Day. We really have an Election autumn — except we’re still technically in summer, so even that phrase doesn’t work.
In any event, here’s what we mean: Today North Carolina starts mailing out absentee ballots to those who have requested them. With that, voting in the 2020 presidential election begins. On Sept. 18, three states — Minnesota, South Dakota and Virginia — open “early voting.” Vermont follows on Sept. 20, and others start accepting votes on varying dates in October.
In 2016, some 40.8% of American voters cast their ballots some way other than showing up at the polls on Election Day, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. It’s entirely possible that this year most voters will cast their ballots before Nov. 3. To speak of “election day” is to speak of something that’s become outdated. What we know as Election Day is really more of a Deadline Day — and a Counting Night.
Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is debatable, but it is definitely a thing — and, contrary to public opinion, it is not a new thing. The pandemic has highlighted the fact that there are other ways to cast a ballot than at the polls, and has certainly accelerated that trend — but did not cause it. Americans are a people who like convenience and over the past two decades we have increasingly gravitated toward the convenience of voting early if we can.
Four years ago, 16 states saw most of their ballots cast some way other than at the conventional ballot box — ranging from 52.4% of the votes in Hawaii to 100% in Oregon, which adopted mail-voting for all elections in 1999, which means we’ve now had five presidential elections where Oregon voters have voted entirely by mail.
That’s why this year’s hysteria over voting by mail — led by President Trump — is mostly, although not entirely, just that. Hysteria. It’s hard to tell if Trump knows what he’s talking about when he’s tweeted about the perils of voting by mail. Take this July 30 tweet: “With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history.”
Here’s the first problem: He’s confusing his terms, and thus confusing voters. A lot of absentee voting has always been conducted by mail, so if you’re for absentee voting, you’re for a certain amount of voting by mail. If you’re truly against voting by mail, then you need to be prepared to tell military personnel overseas they can’t vote at all, because that’s how they’ve always voted.
The controversy this time is really about two other things. First, there’s the sheer volume of people who are expected to vote some way other than at their precinct on Election Day — many by mail, many by showing up in person at registrar’s offices to vote early, as you can in Virginia.
Second, a few states — but not Virginia — intend to mail ballots to every voter, whether they requested them or not. This is certainly a debatable practice, but it’s also not new. Three states voted entirely or almost entirely by mail in 2016 — Colorado, Oregon and Washington — and that’s how they did it. Where was the controversy then?
There are good reasons to be wary of voting by mail: Can the Postal Service really handle the increased volume? How many ballots will arrive too late to be counted? Some states require ballots to arrive by Election Day; others simply require a postmark by then and allow a certain number of days afterwards for them to arrive. How long will this delay the counting? What we have here is a practical example of federalism: We have 50 states with 50 different sets of rules about when voting begins and when ballots must be received. States’-rights conservatives should be OK with this.
Democrats eager to oust Trump ought to be discouraging vote-by-mail because they should want an early and undisputed margin of victory. Republicans keen to re-elect Trump ought to be pushing vote-by-mail because there’s evidence that it’s actually more popular with GOP-leaning voters than with Democratic voters. In Virginia’s May municipal elections, the localities with the highest percentage of absentee ballots (many of those cast by mail) were strongly Republican localities; the places with the lowest percentage tended to be Democratic.
In any case, our point here today is that early voting — whether by mail or in person — changes the dynamic of the campaign but doesn’t necessarily benefit Democrats. Of those 16 states in 2016 where most votes were cast before election day, nine voted for Trump, seven for Hillary Clinton. If you add up the electoral votes, the weight of the early-voting states tilted even more strongly for Trump: 135 for him, 98 for Clinton.
Early voting is often seen as a liberal innovation — as a way to expand the electorate — but many of the states with early voting are pretty darned conservative. We’ve seen some red states embrace early voting with red-hot enthusiasm. Utah, for instance, saw 69% of its ballots last time cast before Election Day. In Tennessee, the figure was 66%. In Montana, almost 65%. In Arkansas, 60%. We don’t know who will win this year’s election but we can guarantee that all four of those states will vote Republican, no matter what.
The difference this time is that there are more states with early-voting rules — again, early voting can be either in-person or by mail — and many of those are some pretty big swing states. Arizona last time had 75% of its ballots cast before Election Day. Florida had 68%, North Carolina 65%, Texas 63%. All four last time went for Trump. Maybe they will again. Maybe they won’t. But here’s a fact you probably didn’t expect: All those states we just named saw a higher percentage of early voting than California, where “only” 59% voted early. This year’s election may be decided long before Election Day.