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Americans Are Casting Midterm Ballots at Record Rates, Which Means the Results Might Take Longer

7 minute read

In 2018, with Donald Trump in the White House and Democrats desperate to regain power in Congress, nearly half of eligible voters cast ballots, achieving the highest turnout rate for a midterm election in more than a century.

This year, the turnout could be even higher.

According to University of Florida professor Michael McDonald, who tracks the early vote for the United States Elections Project, at least 6 million Americans have already voted, a rate that surpasses the 2018 turnout at the same point in October. “If things remain as they are, we’re going to come down and say, ‘Yes, this is an exceptionally high turnout election,’” McDonald says.

High turnout is a positive indicator for enthusiasm and accessibility. But it also may lead to longer wait times for vote counts on and after Election Day. As some Republican candidates baselessly cast doubt on the veracity of results that take longer to come in, elections officials are warning that high turnout could affect how fast Americans get results this year—which could cause extra turmoil in November.

Voters may be particularly motivated, despite Trump’s absence from the ballot for the first time in six years, by a few history-making circumstances. Amid the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, inflation soared to its highest rate in 40 years. That has raised costs for voters, who consistently rank the economy as their top concern. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade in June opened the door to cascading abortion restrictions around the country and tossed the issue back to the states for the first time in half a century.

Still, experts advise caution in predicting overall turnout based on these early numbers alone. The high numbers of mail-in ballots and early in-person votes that have been cast so far could belong to voters who would otherwise go to the polls on Election Day but instead opted to use the methods that became popular during the first year of the pandemic.

On the other hand, those methods have made voting more accessible to many Americans, which could mean more participation. “Most of us are pretty habitual about voting,” says Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican. “We fall into a pattern. We kind of do it the same way every time and we get used to that. And 2020 created a new opportunity for people to try a new way of voting.”

Multiple states are reporting jumps in early voting. In Ohio, the latest numbers LaRose aggregated show an increase in the total number of votes cast early in-person compared to the last midterm election. Georgia’s Secretary of State reported this week that the number of voters who cast ballots in-person on the first day of early voting nearly doubled compared to the last midterm election.

In both Ohio and Georgia, mail-in voting seems to be lagging slightly, but not enough to prevent an overall increase in early participation. According to McDonald, the share of voters who have already cast their ballots this year in Florida is also higher than it was at this point in 2018.

In Michigan, the secretary of state’s office reported that more than 1.7 million voters requested absentee ballots three weeks ahead of Election Day. That’s compared to the slightly more than 912,000 who had requested them three weeks before the 2018 election. As of Friday, more than 640,000 had returned those ballots. “We are on track to have the highest turnout midterm election in recent history,” says Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat. “And we’re also on track to have more people voting absentee in a midterm than we’ve ever had.”

Whether high turnout affects how long it takes to count ballots and get results varies by state.

In Ohio, LaRose says nobody in his office will go home on election night until results are delivered, no matter how high turnout rises. He’s able to make that commitment in part because Ohio pre-processes ballots; ahead of Election Day, officials cut open envelopes, verify signatures, and flatten out ballots so they can be fed cleanly through vote-counting machines, all of which will save time on Nov. 8.

But in states where elections officials aren’t allowed to do that, it’s harder for them to predict what impact higher-than-expected turnout could have. “Because we don’t have [pre-processing] here, it’s going to take a few days for us to have unofficial returns in Pennsylvania,” says acting Secretary of the Commonwealth Leigh Chapman, a Democrat. Chapman says she can’t predict whether exceptionally high turnout in her state would delay results by hours or by days, though she does think it would have an impact. “High turnout would definitely affect how soon we have unofficial results in Pennsylvania,” she says.

Pennsylvania is hosting one of the most critical Senate races in the country and a high-profile gubernatorial race. The Republican nominee for governor, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, is one of several candidates running around the country this cycle who have erroneously questioned the validity of the 2020 election and have not committed to accepting the 2022 results. (Election officials of both parties have testified to the security of the 2020 election.) Some of the candidates have pointed to counting delays as reasons to doubt election outcomes.

In 2020, Mastriano posted on Facebook that “vote dumps” of votes processed after Election Day helped Joe Biden overcome GOP leads on election night. On CNN this week, as Republican Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake refused to commit to accepting the results of the November election, she linked concerns about election security with such delays. “We are going to make sure elections are safe and secure for Democrats, independents, and Republicans alike,” Lake said. “We want to know that our legal vote counted. We want to know the winner on election night. We don’t want to be counting for 10 days.”

Election officials are working to manage expectations and make clear that delays do not suggest election results are illegitimate. “There’s no reason to doubt the accuracy of election results or the security of the process simply because it takes more time to validate and securely count every vote,” Benson says. “It’s really unfortunate that it’s become a political strategy to try to sow seeds of doubt about a very secure process simply because sometimes we prioritize security and accuracy over speed.”

Her office estimates it will take 24 hours to report unofficial results in Michigan, in part because a change to ballot-processing rules came too late. After having to count 3.3 million absentee ballots in 2020, she expects the state’s elections infrastructure to hold up well to this year’s turnout—though she does not guarantee it.

“Certainly when there are more ballots to count, that means it takes more time to securely tabulate all of them, so it does have an impact,” Benson says. “As an asterisk, there are always variables, like machines could break down… There’s all these variables when you’re managing a million votes.”

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