Early voting has expanded significantly, but turnout growth hasn’t kept pace, study finds

A man at a ballot drop box in Norwalk.
A man at a ballot drop box placed at the entrance of Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk in Norwalk.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

When it came to choosing how to vote in the March primary, Californians had it good.

The state mailed a ballot to every registered voter a month before the election. Citizens could vote by mail or drop their ballot in secure, widely accessible boxes. And vote centers opened up weeks before election day.

These options make California one of the easiest states to vote in, and are part of a growing trend of states expanding early voting opportunities, according to a study released Tuesday by the Center for Election Innovation & Research. It found that 97% of people who are of voting age this year will have some ability to vote in person in advance of election day.


Most states don’t offer as many choices as California, but across the ideological divide, voters in both red and blue states have more options than they did 10 or 20 years ago, the study found.

There has been a lot less fanfare for Democrats in Iowa picking their presidential nominee this year.

March 3, 2024

In 2000, just 40% of the voting age population — in 24 states — could vote early in person. In 2024, 46 states will offer early, in-person voting, and 36 will offer the option to vote by mail without having to cite a reason. The increase is notable given former President Trump’s persistent false attacks on the integrity of mail-in voting.

Just four states — Alabama, Mississippi, Delaware and New Hampshire — have no early, in-person voting option and all require an excuse to vote by mail.

Voter turnout has gone up over the same time period but at far lower rate, and unevenly. That slower growth, the researchers said, showed that simply giving citizens more time to vote didn’t necessarily mean more of them actually did.

The shift to wider implementation of early voting began well before the COVID-19 pandemic, but fears about spreading the virus accelerated the trend — with many states making the new options permanent.

“It’s really remarkable to see a bipartisan adoption of procedures that benefit voters and benefit election integrity, especially since so much of the narrative now is about the differences in the parties and how they’re at war over election policies and procedures,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research. “This is one area where we’re not seeing that and it’s benefiting all voters and overall election integrity.”


As these choices have increased, the study found, the number of votes cast before election day increased as well, peaking in 2020 at 69%. The study’s authors expect the proportion of early ballots in 2024 to drop from that pandemic high but predicted it would still exceed the 40% of ballots cast in 2016.

That’s far above the 14% of ballots cast nationally before election day in 2000.

Becker and the study’s authors said early voting serves as a tool against disinformation about candidates and how to vote, among other benefits. Simply having more time, Becker said, allows voters to make more informed decisions about candidates and parse through the flood of information that often overwhelms voters in the run up to elections.

Despite the new options, activists and election researchers have identified practices that may hold back voters. A host of barriers — including the requirement to have photo identification and the purging of names from voters rolls — have increased in recent years in some states.

There is ample evidence to suggest that disinformation and other barriers to voting makes people less likely to vote.

In the end, wider access to early voting options does not assure higher turnout, Becker said.


“There’s very little evidence to suggest that ease of voting is the one lever that fixes voter turnout one way or the other,” he said, adding that turnout has not increased steadily over the last two decades at a rate matching the expansion of early voting.

He pointed out that the highest U.S. turnout since 1900 — about 66% of the voting-eligible population in 2020 — came during a global pandemic.

Turnout in presidential elections increased from 54% of voting age citizens in 2000 to 60% in 2016.

Still, early voting “is an important reform because voters respond to it,” Becker said. “They like having these options.”