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What record early voting numbers tell us about the election — and what they don’t

The country is seeing record turnout for early voting, as well as some late legal challenges around when -- and if -- all those votes get counted. Almost 70 million people have already cast their ballots, with Election Day still a week away. William Brangham reports and talks to the University of Florida’s Michael McDonald, who runs the United States Election Project, about what the numbers show.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As you're hearing, the country is seeing record turnout in early voting, and also some late legal challenges to when and if all those votes get counted.

    William Brangham has more on what this means come election night and beyond.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    Almost 70 million people have already cast their ballots in this election. This massive turnout includes a combination of mail-in ballots and people going to vote in person.

    So, with Election Day just a week away, we dive into what these numbers say about the electorate with Michael McDonald. He is a professor of political science at the University of Florida, and he runs the United States Election Project, which has been tracking the vote so far.

    Professor McDonald, great to have you on the "NewsHour."

    So, you have been tracking this really unprecedented turnout of early voting. What can you tell us about what the trends are showing?

  • Michael McDonald:

    Well, we have seen more people vote in this election than any prior election that we have had in the history of the country. So, we're at record pace.

    In some states, we're pushing near 100 percent of the turnout that occurred in the 2016 election in its entirety, not just its early vote.

  • William Brangham:

    Wow.

  • Michael McDonald:

    So, we're in…

  • William Brangham:

    So, that's a combination of all people who have voted have now been surpassed by the people who voted early?

  • Michael McDonald:

    Yes, we're getting very close to those numbers in some states, like Texas and Hawaii.

    And others are following right on their heels. So what this means in one part is that we're looking at a very high-turnout election. Perhaps 150 million people or so will vote, and that could be the highest turnout that we will see in a modern election since 1908, so truly remarkable numbers in terms of the people voting.

  • William Brangham:

    And certainly a wonderful thing just for our democracy in general.

    Are you able to discern what this huge turnout means for either party? Do we know who's actually turning out?

  • Michael McDonald:

    Yes, there's some good evidence to say that, by and large, it's Democrats that are voting early.

    And that's actually very similar to what we have seen in prior elections as well. Usually, more Democrats vote early. But the way in which they do it is different.

    In prior elections, Democrats have voted predominantly in person early, and that's how they pile up their early voting numbers. This time around, what we're seeing Democrats are voting by mail early. And, as they have hollowed out all those in person early voters, we're actually seeing Republicans doing quite well in the in person early vote in many states.

    But, overall, the electorate is still very heavily Democratic in the early vote. And that's what we have seen in prior elections as well. Election Day tends to be very Republican. So, you have to wait for the whole election to get through. You have to get the Election Day vote, which will offset that early vote to some degree.

    And how much it does, that will tell us who will win the election.

  • William Brangham:

    And do those Democratic-leaning early voters, also, are they using voting by mail as well? We have certainly seen a lot of controversy around voting by mail. The president has been basically saying that it's riddled with fraud.

    Is it largely Democrats using that technology this time around?

  • Michael McDonald:

    Yes, absolutely.

    Usually, it's Republicans who vote by mail in most states. Now, I'm not talking about the all-mail-ballot states, because, obviously, every voter gets a mail ballot in those states.

    What I'm talking about are states where there's multiple methods of voting. And when you do have that, you do see Republicans tend to use mail ballots more frequently than Democrats.

    This election, it's all topsy-turvy. We're seeing Democrats vote by mail, instead of voting in person. And we're seeing Republicans voting in person, instead of voting by mail. We had over 80 million mail ballot requests that were going to be honored by election officials.

    And we knew that the party registration of those voters tended to break heavily towards the Democrats. So, we knew that Democrats were going to have lots of mail ballots. What we haven't quite expected to see is not only have Democrats been voting mail ballots at higher levels, but they're also returning those ballots at a higher rate than Republicans.

    That's another surprise that we're seeing in this election. Usually, it's Republicans who are returning those mail ballots at a higher rate than Democrats.

    Now, I can't really tell everything that is going on here, but it could be very well that some Republicans have gotten cold feet, and even though they requested a mail ballot, they're planning to vote in person, maybe in person early or in person on Election Day.

  • William Brangham:

    On this question of counting those mail-in ballots, we have seen the Supreme Court come down with two rulings with regards to Pennsylvania and Wisconsin about when late arriving mail-in ballots can be counted.

    With those rulings and with others that are pending, what is your sense of what that means for Election Day, and when we might know who's won this election?

  • Michael McDonald:

    Well, it's important to understand that election officials never count all the ballots on election night.

    There's always some ballots that need to be checked over after the election. And there's a certification period that takes place in the weeks after the election, where those ballots are counted.

  • William Brangham:

    And that's totally normal.

  • Michael McDonald:

    That's completely normal.

    But, in this election, we have got all these mail ballots, and it could be that those ballots would be coming back to election offices and overwhelming them if they came back right at the very end.

    But people have voted earlier. That's good news. And some states, the states are actually preparing those ballots for counting. There are some states, like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and Michigan, where the election officials are constrained in how they can count those ballots.

    So, we know, in those states, it's going to take them longer to count the ballots, simply because they're not able to start that preparatory work yet. But, in other states, we should get some very fast results.

    A state like myself, in Florida, we should get those — 99 percent of those ballots counted on election night. And we should have a good idea who won Florida. But, in some other states, it may take a little bit more while for the election officials to count all the ballots.

  • William Brangham:

    And, obviously, then sort of recalibrates all of our expectations about when we know final results.

    Professor Michael McDonald of the University of Florida, thank you so much for being here.

  • Michael McDonald:

    Good to be with you.

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