What does early voting mean?

Today being the Saturday before the election, there will likely be a lot of early voting in those states that allow it. According to some estimates, about 34 million people have already voted, which is about 27% of the 125 million total votes cast in the 2012 election. After this weekend, it could well have risen to a third or more of the final total, though some states such as Nevada and Florida ended early voting yesterday (Friday). There are already analyses of early voting patterns and efforts to draw conclusions from the available data with each party trying to spin the data in its favor. These analyses are based on how many people have voted early, which political parties they belong to, and comparisons with previous years, though of course we do not know who people actually voted for.

The drawback with early voting is that each voter is deciding based on different information. But of course, that would always be the case even if they all voted on the same day because of the highly fragmented way that we get news these days. Early voters are essentially saying that their minds are made up and are betting that nothing major will happen before election day that might cause them to change it.

That sense of certainty is understandable. In the past my actual final vote was decided well before the election though I have always waited to vote until the actual day of the election, except once when I was going to be out of town and requested an absentee ballot. That was in the days when you had to have a reason to vote by mail, unlike now when Ohio allows early voting by mail or in person to anyone who wants to. Although I cannot imagine for the life of me what might cause me to shift my vote from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump, I still like to keep my options open until the end.

I also enjoy going to the polling place on election day and seeing all the poll workers and the signs outside. Even after all these many elections that I have participated in both in Sri Lanka and the US, I still feel a sense of participation in a major event that might be missing if I went down to the election office on some other day.

I can understand that for many people their jobs might not allow them to vote on the day itself. And they might fear long lines, as often happens in poorer neighborhoods that tend to have fewer machines and voting staff and experience more problems. Being able to choose a time and place to vote that is convenient to them makes sense. So I am glad that there is this option even if I do not use it myself.

But I am a little puzzled by the close attention paid to early voting patterns and speculations about what they foretell about the final outcome. How do we know that the final tallies will not be the same because all that early voting does is shift the same votes away from election day? For every article that says that early voting patterns are a good predictor of the outcome, there are others that say the opposite. I suspect that journalists write about this because they are exhausted by having analyzed opinion polls to death and this is something new and looks like it may be more concrete.

I myself tend to ignore early voting analyses. In fact, by this stage in the process, pretty much anything such as early voting patterns and absentee ballot counts and opinion polls, are useless. People have pretty much decided if they are going to vote and whom they are going to vote for. The cake is baked, as they say, and we have to just steel ourselves to ignore all the ways that the media tries to keep us in a state of anxiety and suspense.


  1. says

    I suspect that journalists write about this because they are exhausted by having analyzed opinion polls to death and this is something new and looks like it may be more concrete.

    “Maybe we can drum up some more excitement among our audience that have not turned to utter apathetic corpses from our previous attempts to drum up excitement.”

  2. felicis says

    In Oregon we have a vote by mail system (or you can drop off your ballot at the library or other public offices). The vote envelopes are not opened until they are counted on election day.

    From what I have seen of ‘early voting results’, all that can be determined is how many people of which party are voting -- that tells you little of who they are voting for -- is that (D) someone who registered as a Democrat to vote for Sanders in the Primary and is now voting for Johnson? Is that (R) a woman so disgusted with Trump that she is voting for Clinton? There’s a lot of assumptions that go into that kind of reporting, and while it is probably not a *bad* sign for Clinton that there seem to be a lot more early (D) than (R) voters in some of the swing states, it doesn’t really promise anything -- and it doesn’t tell us that they also voted (D) for the open Senate seat…

    But -- here in Oregon, we do love our method, and we have incredibly high turnout, even for the odd-year elections.

  3. WhiteHatLurker says

    Which leads to another US mystery -- why do all of you need to registered for a particular political party (or rather either Republican or Democrat) before hand? Seems creepy.

  4. Mano Singham says


    You don’t need to. The point is that if you vote in primary elections in which each party chooses its candidate, then you have to choose one party ballot and thus automatically get registered as a member of that party, until some time has expired (I think) or you vote for another party in a subsequent primary.

    So what people have done is look at the early ballot voters in terms of which party primary they voted in before. Since I voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic party primary earlier, that means if I voted early I would be identified as a Democratic party member even though I never formally joined the party or pay any dues.

    The way to avoid being identified with any party is to not vote in any primary election.

  5. WhiteHatLurker says

    So you can’t vote in both repo-demo primaries? Or one of the big parties and one of the never-going-to-wins? That’s a shame. If you’re willing to buy a membership to do so, it should be doable.
    Still, the government bodies (voters registration) records, tracks and cares which primary you went to? Tad intrusive.

    On the other paw, you have people with no skin in the game (i.e not card carrying, dues paying members of a political party) selecting the candidate? Why didn’t all y’all go republican and soundly defeat Trump like 6 months ago? I get you like Bernie. He seems like a nice, avuncular, folksy sort. But really, strategic voting processes could have prevented the mess that you’re in now and you could have that nice Canadian boy running, or Bush 2.2, or almost anyone that is breathing, not Trump, and not embarrassing your entire country. It seems that is the Democrat supporters’ choice that Trump is in there as much as it is on the Republicans. And you might even have had someone that you might like more than Clinton. (medium likelihood given what I’ve seen on the internetz.)

    I’ll just leave it as one of the things I don’t get about your process. Happy Election Day.

    And a big shout-out to those using advance polls -- it really helps with the ballot box grid-lock here, and we don’t vote for everything in the entire government universe in one fell swoop.

  6. Mano Singham says


    No, you can’t vote in both party primaries. Some parties allow those who voted in one party primary last time to vote in the other party primary the next time. This has resulted in people suggesting your tactic, that you get a ballot for the other party in order to vote against someone you dislike or for the person that you think your own party has the best chance of defeating. Such so-called cross-voting movements, though legal, have never been successful, as far as I am aware.

    As for me personally, I just find the idea of voting for someone in bad faith, someone who I do not want to win, to be distasteful. I just cannot bring myself to do it.

  7. John Morales says

    Some readers may find this comparison between Australian and USA voting methods informative:
    US election: How the 2016 Australian election would have looked under US voting rules.

    Whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will come out on top after the vote on November 8 comes down to a complex system with many moving parts, which is far removed from Australia’s Westminster-style democracy.

    ABC News has re-interpreted the results of Australia’s recent election using the American electoral rules, to untangle the complexities of the system.


    A key difference in the US voting system in comparison with Australia’s is the use of the first-past-the-post system, where electors are only allowed to mark one candidate.

    (Another significant difference is that in Australia, voting is compulsory)

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