On absentee/mail-in voting

In my last post I forecasted a Trump victory based on him retaining key swing states like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin (although not Michigan).

But reports of a surge in absentee/mail-in voting signups by Democrats in some of these states raise questions about whether Trump will really be able to hold on to them.

Basics

  • Mail-in voting is the same as absentee voting. Different states use different terms, but both refer to the same thing: voting using the postal service.
  • Universal mail-in voting is a sub-category of absentee/mail-in voting, where the state will send every voter a ballot in the mail, whether or not they request one. The voter then has a choice to vote by mail, vote in person, or not vote at all.
  • Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, Washington, California, Nevada, Vermont, and New Jersey have universal mail-in voting. None of these are swing states.
  • Trump has criticized universal mail-in voting: “Absentee ballots, by the way, are fine… But the universal mail-ins that are just sent all over the place, where people can grab them and grab stacks of them, and sign them and do whatever you want, that’s the thing we’re against.”

Crunching the numbers

Let’s take a look at the absentee/mail-in data for Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and North Carolina, where I noted that the outcome was relatively uncertain.

One of the headline-grabbing figures it that around 650,000 more Democrats have signed up for absentee ballots than Republicans have, indicating that there will be a surge in turnout among Biden voters in November.

But it is important to consider the possible sampling bias at play here:

  • A Monmouth survey (6-Aug to 10-Aug) reported that 72% of Democrats but only 22% of Republicans were likely to vote by mail
  • A Pew survey (27-Jul to 2-Aug) showed 58% of Biden supporters would prefer to vote by mail, but only 17% of Trump supporters felt the same way
  • A TargetSmart survey (21-May to 27-May) showed that 52% of Democrats and 33% of Republicans intended to vote by mail

One of the main reasons for this divide could be that Trump’s rhetoric against mail-in voting has turned usage of the facility into a partisan issue. The bottom line is that using absentee signups to estimate voter turnout could be overestimating the Democrat edge.

Given that Democrats tend to favor absentee voting, for a state like Florida where Democrats and Republicans are roughly matched in numbers, we should expect there to be more Democrats signing up for absentee ballots in that state. In fact I estimate that, ceteris paribus, Democrats should have an edge in absentee ballot signups by around 819,000.

I use numbers of people that voted for either party in 2016 and the respective propensity for voters for each party to sign up for an absentee ballot (conservative 52-33 propensities) to estimate the below expected edges for the Dems:

Numbers for FL and NC are from state governments; using estimates by polling firm TargetSmart for PA and WI

As you can see, although Democrat absentee signups are impressive, for each state they are less than what they should be given the propensity of Democrats to vote by mail anyway. This would indicate that enthusiasm among Democratic voters is weak, a fact I pointed to in my analysis of polling and primary data.

Putting it altogether…

Data for FL and NC from state governments; data for PA and WI from pollster TargetSmart
  • Florida: Polls are razor-thin, while primary and absentee data suggests lackluster engagement among Democrats.
  • North Carolina: polling and primary data is very close, while absentee signups for the Democrats are disappointing.
  • Pennsylvania and Wisconsin: polls show Biden with a decent lead, but less people voted in those states’ Democrat primaries this year than in 2016. In line with my conservative approach, I am giving these states to Trump.

Since my call remains a Trump win with just 289 electoral college votes (306 in 2016), the loss of just Florida to Biden, or any two smaller states from the above table would change the outcome of the election. So I will keep monitoring polling and absentee data (the above table has been updated for polling data) and revise my calls if required.

Timelines: It takes longer to count a mail ballot than a regular one because officials must open thick envelopes, inspect the ballots, and confirm voters’ identities. The large number of people opting for absentee voting may delay the timeline for knowing the outcome of the election. Also, given that Democrats are more likely to use absentee ballots, the initial results we get on polling day are likely to skew the initial outcome in favor of Trump. All of this means we could be in for an “election week” rather than election day, with controversy to follow if the final results differ from those on election day.

If you have questions or feedback, feel free to reach out to me: abbas [dot] keshvani [at] gmail.com.

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