We’re headed for another recall election, the first in nearly 20 years. A lot of things have changed, including the number of voters who will be casting their ballots by mail.
Looking back at 2003, there were only 3 million voters who received their ballots in the mail. This cycle, all 22 million voters are getting their ballots in the mail, and we’re likely to see the vast majority of those cast by mail prior to Election Day.
The consistent, older, largely Republican households mail their ballots early, while Democrats, minorities, and renters all return their ballots late or get pushed to the polls by extensive field operations
Who is voting early is really an open question.
For decades, California’s vote-by-mail universe has skewed older, suburban, white, and more Republican. Only in the last few election cycles has this changed. Over the last decade, counties have been promoting vote-by-mail, and more than a dozen converted to the state’s Voters Choice Act system with ballots mailed to all voters.
Over time, patterns have developed. The consistent, older, largely Republican households mail their ballots early, while Democrats, minorities, and renters all return their ballots late or get pushed to the polls by extensive field operations that have defined many progressive and Democratic campaigns.
But 2020 threw this all on its head.
With Republicans concerned about voter fraud, and the attacks on vote-by-mail coming from the White House and FOX News, Republicans shifted. Suddenly they were largely distrustful of voting by mail, and we saw their votes come in at the end, especially on Election Day itself.
Democrats weren’t immune from their own panic over vote-by-mail – but their fear was the opposite. Talking heads on MSNBC and progressive leaders railed against U.S. Postmaster Louis DeJoy slowing down the mail, and viral videos of mailboxes being removed from streets caused intense anxiety about mailing anything – especially a ballot.
Both of these fears were, of course, unfounded. The vote-by-mail system worked, and we never saw problems with ballots being received too late. California had already extended deadlines for receiving ballots that are postmarked by the day of the election.
But where have these fears gone? Have Republicans returned to their pre-2020 norms and have Democrats resolved themselves that they can trust the post office? Or will this reverse-polarization continue?
As of Friday night, nearly 600,000 voters have cast ballots. That’s just under 3% of the total ballots mailed to voters.
As we look at the ballot tracking this cycle, we need to be keenly aware of these questions before jumping to conclusions.
Of course, social media and political prognostication is built on people jumping to conclusions. So, for nearly a decade, Political Data has been providing public information on the ballot returns, giving the partisan, ethnic, age, and geographic breakdown of all the absentee ballots as they roll in.
With that tracker launching today, we can take a look at what these early numbers are showing us.
As of Friday night, nearly 600,000 voters have cast ballots. That’s just under 3% of the total ballots mailed to voters, and we expect this number to dramatically increase in the coming days.
The speed with which ballots are returned has varied by county, with a handful of registrars having mailed out their ballots earlier than others.
The largest counties with really early mailings were Merced and San Francisco, currently at 14% and 13% turnout, respectively. These counties are telling different stories in terms of partisan performance.
Observers who are seeing the early high numbers statewide for Democrats in the numbers could be getting fooled with the over-representation of these L.A. votes
In San Francisco, where Democrats have a whopping 56-point advantage over Republicans, the ballots have a 63-point-Democratic advantage, a 7-point swing. In Merced, with a 15-point Democratic advantage in registration, Democrats are slower in returning their ballots, showing only a 7-point advantage, an 8-point negative swing.
The county with the largest total number of returns is Los Angeles County which also mailed a bit earlier than others and is at nearly 200,000 ballots returned. In L.A. County, where 53% of the voters are registered Democratic, 62% of the ballots cast are from Democrats, an 8-point positive swing.
There are caveats in all this data.
Observers who are seeing the early high numbers statewide for Democrats in the numbers could be getting fooled with the over-representation of these L.A. votes. Also, there could be some Democrats who are motivated to vote early, but not voting with their party, instead casting a vote for the recall. And, as mentioned earlier, these relatively Democratic numbers could be just the opening stages, and if partisans are in the 2020 mindset regarding ballot returns, we should see the early big numbers by Democrats be challenged by a big wave of Republican turnout at the end.
One last tidbit – the county with the highest turnout so far? Little Alpine County, which has already seen 59% turnout – a figure that is likely to be higher than the expected total turnout for this special recall election.
Editor’s Note: Paul Mitchell is the creator of the CA120 column, vice president of Political Data, Inc., and owner of Redistricting Partners, a political consulting firm. To see the daily data analyses, sign up here to get the 2021 Recall Absentee Ballot Tracker.