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When Democrats won the House in 2018, they did so with the help of a huge increase in voter turnout for a midterm election in more than 100 years.
However, half of the population eligible to vote did not participate.
This year, early voting has increased in some cases in key states, but when I spoke with Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist known for tracking early voting data, he predicted turnout would drop below that 2018 level.
McDonald has a new book out that looks at the massive turnout in the 2020 presidential election, when nearly 67% of eligible voters cast ballots. More information about the book and tracking early voting is available on the US Election Project website.
We talked about what people should take away from the last election and what they’re seeing as they monitor early voting data for today’s election.
Below is an abridged version of our lengthy phone conversation.
WOLF: You’ve written a book about this amazing democratic achievement of voting in a pandemic. What do you want people to take away from this research?
McDonald’s: We have to give a lot of credit to election officials, poll workers and the voters themselves for turning out the highest turnout presidential election since 1900.
There was no one alive who voted in the 2020 election, we had a higher turnout in the last election. That’s a really big achievement. We managed to do something historic in extraordinary circumstances. That is very positive news.
Unfortunately, the other takeaway from the book is the relentless attacks on voting that happened in the election, coming from (with former President Donald) rhetoric. Trump, and then filtering through this party. This has damaged democracy, and we see that it happens in real time 2022 elections.
WOLF: You mentioned the highest turnout in 100 years in 2020. I saw in the book that the 2018 midterm turnout was the highest since 1914. We are seeing that more people are questioning the integrity of the elections, but also more participation in the elections. What do you think about that?
McDonald’s: The last time we had very high turnout was in the late 1800s, and that time was also intensely polarized. We don’t have polling data, so we can’t go back and ask voters if they were polarized, but we can guess that what was happening among our constituents in the federal government was also a reflection of what was happening among the voters. .
And so we’ve entered a deeper polarization, and you can point to the culprits. But whatever the reason, we’ve certainly reached a point where people really believe that it matters who runs the government and that it really matters who runs the government for them.
When people perceive this difference between parties and the importance of different policies in their lives, they are more likely to vote.
It’s that old curse: you may live in interesting times. We live in interesting times. People are very interested in politics, so they are very engaged in elections.
WOLF: In In the 1880s, the US be close to 80% of participation. You could argue that higher turnout signals an alarm bell for democracy in some ways.
McDonald’s: You hope that people are engaged for altruistic reasons, that they want to be good citizens, that they are carefully considering their options and reaching an informed decision about who to vote for.
There have been some people looking back at a political science report from the 1950s who lamented that there was no difference between the political parties, that we were collapsing, that we were headed for the decline of democracy in the United States unless it was fixed. the parties
Look, you have to be careful what you wish for, because parties are more powerful in the electorate than ever in modern times, and now people are thinking, well, maybe that’s too much.
What is the happy medium of an engaged electorate, but not so passionate about partisanship, in some cases, that they want to take violent action because they think politics matters so much?
WOLF: You are well known for tracking early voting data. What can he really tell us before Election Day?
McDonald’s: I started tracking early voting in the 2008 election. They wanted to know the size of the early votes so they could weight them appropriately in their polls.
And like a lark, I posted it online. A million hits later I created a website, and I knew I had somehow done something different and special. And if you look at data journalism that’s happening today, it’s in line with what I do, which is to take some administrative data and kind of tell a story with it.
To answer the question of where we are in the early voting…what you want to do is take all the information you can gather and try to paint a picture of where we are. So I don’t think early voting alone tells the picture just like I don’t think polls alone tell the definitive picture of where the election is going.
Surveys are flawed. Early voting has its own nuances and measurement problems.
WOLF: What are some things you’re seeing in early voting?
McDonald’s: It’s not just about voting or being able to vote. They have to want to vote, and we’re certainly seeing a lot of interest in voting, especially in the high-profile elections that are being held for the US Senate or gubernatorial races. Those seem to be turning out voters.
What we’re seeing in those states is a high level of early voting. We are seeing a great deal of democratic commitment.
What we would normally see in a midterm election is that the party holding the presidency would be punished in some way. For whatever reason, people find reason to be angry and concerned about something the administration has done.
But we are not in these races Given a sort of referendum on the Biden presidency. In fact, look at the polls: People who strongly disapprove of (President Joe) Biden is still saying he will vote for the Democratic nominee. What’s happening here is that the election has turned into a choice between candidates rather than a referendum on Biden.
If you look elsewhere in the country, we don’t see the same level of commitment. In the absence of this commitment, the election becomes more of a referendum on Biden, and there we could see a divided result, as many polls show.
If Democrats lose the House, it will likely be at least partially because voters have not found a reason to vote in a state like California.
As we enter this final week of early voting, that’s the challenge for Democrats. How do you get your base to vote at the same level as the Republicans, where you don’t have this high-brand race that drives people to vote?
WOLF: possible we now suppose that due to high turnout in some states and many people using early voting, some of these concerns about restrictive new voting laws were unfounded?
McDonald’s: I’ll give you a stupid and completely ridiculous answer to that. But he has a point. Do you know what this election is about? I see massive voter suppression in this election.
I look at the 2020 presidential election and turnout is down in every state. There has been massive voter suppression in these elections.
Of course you think that’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous because he votes at higher rates in presidential elections than in midterm elections.
And just because you’re running an interesting race to get people to vote in a state like Georgia, that doesn’t mean that SB 202, which is the law that was passed in Georgia, has made it easier for everyone to vote. state. This does not mean that there are certain communities that have not been left behind.
A good example of that, if you look at Georgia, is that while we’re seeing record numbers of early voters in person, we’re seeing mail-in ballots cut in half. And you can say, well, that’s fine. People who would vote by mail will or will vote in person vote on election day or early.
There may be some people who, for whatever reason, are at home and cannot go to a polling station, and must vote by mail. And for those people, they may not be able to participate at the same level that other people in Georgia have.
I’m not going to say that just because there’s a high early voting turnout in Georgia, that means the law didn’t have an oppressive effect on a particular community in Georgia.
WOLF: Another story emerging from this election has been the shift toward Republicans in your home state of Florida. Hispanics and Latinos vote Republican. Are there early polls to support or disprove this? And do you agree with that larger narrative?
McDonald’s: We really can’t answer that question with the data we have because we don’t know how people vote.
In general, early voting in regular elections tends to be won by Democrats, or at least registered Democrats. In this election cycle, Republicans are winning early voting.
So far (as of Nov. 2), registered Republicans have a nearly 180,000-vote advantage in both mail-in and early voting, and most of the advantage comes from presence.
But still, all these Democrats have a postal vote. And here’s the strange thing: they don’t return them. Not to the same degree or level as the Republicans.
So if you look at the return rate, (as of November 2), 48% of Democrats have returned their mail ballots, compared to 55% of Republicans. So those are the people who have the postal vote in hand, and you’re seeing a big difference in those return rates.
Part of what’s happening in Florida is the self-fulfilling prophecy that people who don’t believe Democrats can win aren’t voting. And because they don’t vote, the Democrats can’t win.
WOLF: Will the 2022 turnout eclipse the mid-2018 turnout?
McDonald’s: We will see a great turnout. Georgia will likely exceed its 2018 attendance. And other states like Pennsylvania might.
But it’s very possible that you won’t see the same level of engagement in some big states like California, New York, and Texas. And since the majority of the population lives in those big states and they don’t have competitive elections that are reducing turnout, we can see some disparity.
I don’t expect it to come back in 2014. It was the lowest turnout election since 1942. But I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re down from 2018.