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Early voting is blowing the doors off this midterm election, but it's unclear what that means for Tuesday

Early voting is blowing the doors off this midterm election, but it's unclear what that means for Tuesday
Voters cast ballots early in Atlanta. Georgia's gubernatorial election is a close race between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp. (Jessica McGowan / Getty Images)

Election day is less than a week away, but more than 27 million Americans are apparently so psyched or angry or frightened or inspired or whatever drives people to the polls that they have already cast their ballots.

Early voting has become an increasingly regular part of campaigns, a way for some to avoid last-minute hassles at their polling place or, perhaps, knowing they have hip surgery scheduled for election day, to ensure they make their voice heard by voting absentee.

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Turnout for the midterm vote, at the halfway point of a president’s four-year term, typically falls off drastically from a presidential election. But early turnout is running unusually high this fall, which shouldn’t be a surprise given the heated sentiments on both sides. Eighteen states have already surpassed their early-vote totals from 2014, the last midterm election; a handful — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Texas — could surpass the total votes cast in 2014 even before Tuesday rolls around.

“Something special is going on right now,” said Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist and leading expert on early voting. “The numbers we’re seeing are unprecedented.”

If the trend continues, he said, turnout could be the highest since 49% of eligible voters cast ballots in the 1966 midterm vote, and may even top 50%, a level of midterm voter participation that hasn’t been seen in more than a century, since the election of 1914.

How does early voting work?

That depends on where you live. In 37 states and the District of Columbia, any qualified voter can cast their ballot ahead of election day. In some states, it’s a mail-in ballot. Others set up early-voting sites so people can cast their ballots in person, in some cases weeks ahead of election day.

Some states, like California, allow residents to sign up as permanent absentee voters and mail in their ballots every election. Other states are far more restrictive. In 20 of them, some sort of excuse or justification is needed to explain why a voter can’t make it to his or her polling place on election day.

Two states — Oregon and Washington — conduct their elections entirely by mail.

Enough buildup! Is a wave coming on Nov. 6?

Sorry, can’t say.

So what good are you?

That’s debatable.

What can early voting tell us?

It’s a good way to gauge interest in an election. As you would expect, the more engaged people are, the greater the turnout.

Beyond that, certain inferences can be drawn. If, for instance, a large number of first-time voters cast early ballots, that would suggest candidates are successfully expanding the electorate by targeting less-frequent midterm voters, such as minorities and young people.

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In Georgia, for instance, where Stacey Abrams is bidding to become the nation’s first black woman governor, there has been a strong early turnout of African Americans, which would seem to bode well for her campaign.

What else can be divined from the early vote?

Certain information is available to campaigns and media as part of the public record. In California, for instance, it’s possible to know the name, party registration and age of everyone casting an early vote.

“From there we enhance and enhance and enhance,” said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data, a California voter data company. Overlaying basic information with further identifiers such as race and ethnicity, home ownership and other details makes it possible to build a fairly informative model of the early-voting electorate and whether, say, more Democrats or Republicans have cast their ballots.

As of Wednesday nearly 3 million ballots have been returned in California, according to a tally kept by Political Data. Of those, 43% were cast by registered Democrats, 33% by registered Republicans and the remainder by voters classified as independent or members of other parties.

In the state’s seven most competitive House races, more than 450,000 early votes have been cast, a greater number by registered Republicans than registered Democrats.

Great! So who’s winning?

Sorry, can’t say. The answer won’t be clear until all the votes are cast and counted.

Rats!

Plenty of people will speculate, and some will even offer reasonable-sounding theories about what will happen on Tuesday. But really, it’s all little more than guesswork. Informed guesswork, in some instances, but guesswork nevertheless.

Why’s that?

Because the one thing that’s unknowable is the most important data point of all: How people actually voted. In this era of down-to-the-bone partisanship, it’s safe to assume that most Democrats will vote for the Democratic candidate and most Republicans will vote Republican. But that’s certainly not true for all of them. And while most independents lean toward one major party or the other, the fact that they don’t strongly identify with either makes it even trickier to know for whom they cast their ballot.

Does the fact that more registered Republicans have voted early in some places signal a red wave?

Not at all. Experience has shown that Republicans tend to vote earlier in the process than Democrats. Some of that may have to do with the fact that many Republicans are older and prefer to vote by mail, which is easier than showing up at a polling place to cast an early ballot. Historically, we’ve seen Democrats catch up as it gets closer to election day and younger people start casting their early votes.

But I really, really want to know Tuesday’s outcome. Is there anything I can do?

Sure. Brew a pot of tea. Strain the liquid and swirl the leaves inside the cup. Read the results.

Seriously.

Seriously. Forget all the prognostications. If you haven’t already, just vote.

6 p.m.: This article was updated with new California early-vote totals.

11:30 a.m.: This article was updated with revised early-voting totals.

6:10 a.m.: This article was updated with revised early-voting totals.

This article was originally published at 3 a.m.

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