By Michael Bitzer
The nation, and North Carolina, have finally arrived at this point: just two days before the final votes are cast in Election 2020, and then the counting begins on what is shaping up as a historic election, by pretty much any standard.
The level of early voting--with estimates of over 90 million ballots cast nation-wide before Tuesday, November 3--is certainly one for the record books, and especially in North Carolina's period of early voting, made up of both absentee by mail and absentee onestop, which most refer to as 'early voting in-person.'
According to the U.S. Election Project, as of Sunday, Nov. 1., two-thirds of all the votes cast in 2016 have been already submitted in the 2020 election.
In North Carolina, 2020's early ballots are 95 percent of all the votes cast in 2016, which equates to nearly 62 percent of the 7.3 million registered voters having already voted as we head into Tuesday's general election. It would only take another 238,000 voters to match 2016's total ballots cast; that 238,000 would be just 3 percent of the current 7.3 million, equating to 65 percent voter turnout.
If past presidential election years are any indication, we should see registered voter turnout at least 69 percent:
In a realistic scenario, North Carolina could be looking at a low to mid-70 percent turnout rate when the polls close Tuesday night; meaning, anywhere from a potential 725,000 to 943,000 voters could show up on November 3, and that would give the state either a 72 or 75 percent registered voter turnout rate this year.
So, here are a number of data points about what we know about NC's early votes, who has cast ballots so far, and what we should expect come Tuesday's final voting. Be prepared for a deep data dive into the numbers.
How many North Carolinians have early voted?
As if 2020 needed anything else to distinguish itself so far this year, the numbers of early votes have broken all the records in the Old North State.
Through the last day of the state's early voting period (Saturday, Oct. 31), 4,531,582 absentee ballots were cast: of that 4.5 million, 928,428 are from mail-in ballots (with more likely to come in up to Thursday, Nov. 12) and 3,603,154 cast in-person (absentee onestop).
These numbers simply dwarf what was cast in 2016, when two-thirds of the ballot came before Election Day four years ago.
Over 1.4 million more early votes were cast in North Carolina then in all of 2016, with nearly 5 times the number of absentee by mail ballots cast so far and twenty-two percent more absentee one-stop (in-person) ballots cast than in 2016.
The beginning of the early voting period (for in-person) saw the significant daily numbers more than surpass what was done on those same days in 2016, but the pace slowed in the final days of this year's early voting period, as evident in this next chart.
Both mail-in and in-person ballots saw their first week numbers grow exponentially against the same day numbers in 2016, but by the end, the in-person numbers dropped below their respective 2016 daily totals, while absentee by mail continued to surpass their 2016 daily numbers.
In the end, 2020's distribution of early votes was 80 percent in-person to 20 percent by mail; in 2016, the divided was 94 percent in-person to 6 percent by mail.
Who early voted in North Carolina, by party registration?
2020 has also seen a remarkable shift among partisan usage of the two early vote methods. The general past pattern has been that registered Republicans tended to dominate by mail voting (in 2012 they were half of the mail-in ballots and in 2016, they were 40 percent), while registered Democrats tended to dominate in-person early voting (in 2016, they were 42 percent).
This year, the tables turned, as evident in this next chart:
In the end, Democrats hold a five percentage point lead on all early votes, but the divided is remarkably close to the overall voter registration pool percentages each party affiliation has (on October 31, registered Democrats were 36 percent, registered Republicans were 30 percent, and registered unaffiliated voters were 33 percent of the voter pool).
The comparison between 2016's early votes and 2020's isn't really comparison other than the growth in all three party affiliations (or lack thereof) numbers. The dotted lines in the next chart are 2016 numbers by party registration, while the solid lines are 2020's numbers.
However, by party registration percentages, 2020's dynamic shows a real growth in unaffiliated voters, while registered Democrats dropped in their overall percentages and Republicans held steady compared to four years ago.
In looking at the two early vote methods, one can see the real shift in registered Democrats voting by mail compared to registered Republicans and unaffiliated voters voting in-person, in comparison to 2016 (dotted lines).
My initial take-away is that there is a real wild-card in these 2020 numbers: that of the unaffiliated voter, and whether they may be a traditional lean-Republican dynamic, as has been the usual case in the past, or whether these voters could be more Democratic-leaning.
Of the 7.3 million registered NC voters, nearly 62 percent have already cast their ballots, with 39 percent left who could vote on Tuesday, November 3.
When broken down by party registration status, both partisan voters have an equal percentage of their voters from which to draw from for Tuesday.
Both registered Democrats and Republicans have 36 percent of their numbers left to potentially vote: 927,000 Democrats and 790,000 Republicans.
Among the wild-card unaffiliated voters, 44 percent--or slightly over 1 million--could show up to vote come Tuesday, but not likely. In North Carolina, unaffiliated voters don't turnout at rates comparable to partisan registered voters, as evident in past elections:
Who early voted in North Carolina, by voter race-ethnicity?
Among the early voters, Whites made up two-thirds, while Black/African American voters were 19 percent. The number of Black voters is down in comparison to their voter pool percentage (21 percent) and in their historical turnout rates in early voting. But there may be a significant reason why in another category of voters.
In 2012's early votes, Black voters were 27 percent, while in 2016, they were 22 percent. However, voters who did not indicate either a racial category or ethnicity has risen significantly. In 2016, they were 3 percent, while this year, they are nearly 10 percent of the early voters.
There could be some 'masking' of the voter's race & ethnicity buried in those 'unknown/unreported' numbers that are a real mystery. As Chris Cooper has pointed out in a previous post, the rise of the 'unknowns' is going to present a real issue for understanding voting rights and behavior in this state.
Among White voters, their party percentages almost mirror their overall registration dynamics: currently, 42 percent of White voters are registered Republicans, 35 percent are unaffiliated, and 25 percent are registered Democratic.
In terms of who has turned out so far among voter race-ethnicity, the newest category being recorded by state data--that of Hawaiian Natives/Pacific Islanders--has seen the greatest numbers participate in early voting: 67 percent. Among White voters, 64 percent have already cast ballots, while 58 percent of Black voters have voted early. Among the 'unknowns,' 59 percent have voted early.
Who early voted in North Carolina, by generations of voters?
Based on the categories created by the Pew Research Center, North Carolina's voter pool has a plurality of voters under the age of 40: this includes Millennials and Generation Z cohorts. In comparison, Boomers are 30 percent of the total voters, with Generation X making up a quarter and the Silent generation ten percent.
In comparison, the early voters are a plurality Boomer, with 28 percent being Millennials and Generation Z.
This early voting dynamic is certainly evident in the percentage of each cohort left to potentially vote on Tuesday: both Generation Z and Millennials have 53 percent of their voters who could vote on Tuesday, while Boomers have a little over a quarter of their voters and Gen X with 37 percent of their cohort.
In previous research, the 'youngest' group of voters by vote method tends to be on Election Day, so we will see if that continues in 2020.
Who has early voted in North Carolina, by regions?
One of the key questions has been which region will dominate this year's election: urban, suburban, or rural voters? Both parties are battling over expanding their base of voters in different regions, and it's likely there will be some shifting of partisan allegiances in some critical areas of the state.
Most important in my mind are the suburbs within urban counties, known in these charts as 'urban suburbs.' As a reminder, this region was the true battleground in 2016's presidential election in North Carolina:
Among NC's early votes, urban central cities have the largest percentage of votes and are overwhelmingly Democratic (as evident in the next chart), while the urban suburbs are second and evenly divided among party and non-party registration status.
The surrounding suburban counties are Republican-plurality, because that's where the base of NC's GOP is located. If counties like Union, Gaston, or Johnston see their GOP margins shrink from 2016 levels, that should be a key indicator of the potential state-wide dynamic at hand come Tuesday evening.
When it comes to turnout, however, it's again the battleground urban suburbs that have seen nearly two-thirds of its voters already cast their ballots.
Who has early voted in North Carolina, by 2016 vote methods?
One of the distinctive advantages to studying North Carolina politics is the availability of data on voters, especially data of past vote history and methods.
Among the overall accepted early votes cast in the state so far, over half are from voters who voted absentee onestop, or in-person, in 2016. Nearly 20 percent are from voters who voted on Election Day in 2016, with 27 percent coming from non-2016 voters (either were registered in 2016 but didn't vote or registered after 2016).
The party registration breakdowns for these groups of 2016 voters/non-voters are:
The largest group of current NC voters--38 percent--voted absentee onestop in 2016, and these are the state's high propensity voters: as shown in the next chart, 83 percent of them voted early again this year.
Conversely, three-quarters of the voters who didn't vote in 2016 but were registered that year have yet to cast a ballot.
Over half--54 percent--of the voters who have registered after 2016 voted early this year, while the same percentage--54--of the 2016 Election Day voters opted to vote early this year.
Who has early voted in North Carolina, by gender?
Finally, I decided to look at the early voters by gender, due to the national narrative of how women are likely the deciding factor in this year's election.
Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of registered women in North Carolina have already cast their ballot, while 59 percent of men have done so.
Again, thanks to being able to split the data into different ways, I decided to look at the gender dynamics through party registration, regions, and voter race-ethnicity.
Among party registration, two-thirds of both registered Democrats and Republican women have already cast their ballots; 57 percent of unaffiliated women voted early. Registered Republican men have a slightly higher turnout in early voting than registered Democratic men, with registered unaffiliated men having the lowest early turnout.
Dividing the genders by regions, one area is notable in standing out for its early vote percentage: women in the urban suburbs. Two-thirds of these voters have banked their ballots early.
Finally, 35 percent of White women are left to potentially cast ballots, compared to 37 percent White men; 38 percent of Black women are left, compared to 47 percent Black men.
So what happens Election Day when the polls close?
Tentatively, North Carolina's polls will close at 7:30 PM after starting at 6:30 AM on Tuesday. I say 'tentatively' because: 1., it's 2020; and 2., there could be issues across the state that may pre-empt that closing time. We'll need to see what happens and if any potential emergency orders come from judges to extend the voting at precincts. It has happened before, so nothing will be out of the ordinary, as noted by the NC State Board of Elections.
So, with that understanding, the first numbers that will likely be released after the polls close (whenever that is) will be the absentee votes, both by mail and onestop/in-person. My experience is that usually within the first hour, the first set of numbers released are absentee votes.
On the NCSBE's election results dashboard, you can select an election contest and then select "Results by Voting Method" to see how the results are breaking down by candidates' results within vote methods, as noted in this screenshot.
Again, exercise some patience because different counties will start to load their absentee numbers at different times. The expectation is that we should see the 4.5 million absentee ballots (from onestop and mail) be the first numbers released, and then take those dynamics and think about the margins between candidates and what needs to be made up in terms of Election Day votes patterns.
When will North Carolina's results be made "official"?
In four very simple and clear words: NOT ON ELECTION EVENING.
North Carolina's reporting will be "UNOFFICIAL" the evening of Tuesday, November 3rd, and will continue to be "unofficial" until the 100 counties canvass their results and resolve any issues to then certify their elections. Per North Carolina general statute (law) and the policy of the NC State Board of Elections, that canvassing occurs ten (10) days after the election.
Then, the process moves to the state level, where the NC State Board of Elections will meet three (3) weeks after the election to do its canvassing and to officially certify the results at that point.
For anyone who questions this process, it has been the law of North Carolina for many election cycles before 2020, so there is no need to say "this is something new." It is not.
So what does this data tell us, if anything?
While I have been studying North Carolina politics since 2002, I have never seen something as incredible as this year's election numbers. We are close to the election results being known, so we should just wait another 48-72 hours, let the last of the voters have their say, and see what happens when the polls finally close on 2020's election.
But with the remarkable numbers so far, and the potential turnout on Election Day, it gives me every bit of confidence in predicting that 2020 will again make us think, "wow, what a year."