Turnout for the 2020 election could be the highest in a century. This week, with election day still more than a week away, Texas has already reached almost 60 per cent of its turnout from four years ago. More ballots have already been cast in Texas than were cast in that state for Donald Trump alone in 2016. And that’s just Texas: around 30 per cent of the total number of votes in the 2016 election have already been cast.
That doesn’t necessarily mean good news for either candidate. In states that report party registration of voters, 52 per cent of votes have been cast by Democrats. But we can’t say for sure that all of those votes will be for Joe Biden, just as we can’t say that, even if they were, Trump wouldn’t catch up on election day itself (Trump has predicted a “red wave” on 3 November).
We also don’t know why, exactly, early voting is so high. It could be because people are wary of queueing in a large crowd on election day, or because, as I wrote in my column for this magazine, the memory of 2016 means voters don’t trust the polls. At the time of writing, the New Statesman election prediction model gives Biden an 88.3 per cent chance of winning. Yet the New York Times gave Hillary Clinton more than a 90 per cent chance of winning the election in 2016.
In 2016, the polls didn’t capture rural support for Trump, which is a phenomenon that should now have been corrected for. Also, the FBI head Christopher Wray has, so far, not announced an investigation into Trump’s opponent mere days before the election, as James Comey did into Clinton’s emails in late October 2016. (Trump is reportedly considering firing Wray for not being more helpful politically.) Still, Clinton is not currently president, and the average American or analyst can be forgiven for wondering if polls tell us much as a result.
But here’s what high early turnout does tell us: people are voting. Despite the challenges of voting in a pandemic and despite Trump’s admitted attempts to keep the US Postal Service from being able to deliver mail-in ballots, millions of Americans have already found a way to cast their votes. There may be few reasons to feel good about American democracy at present, but surely this is one.