In just a little over a year, people will line up at polling places across the country as the quadrennial Super Bowl of American politics unfolds before out eyes: a presidential Election Day. By that time, however, about 40% of the vote will already be in.
The power and symbolism of Election Day is a big part of any campaign cycle – from “I Voted” stickers to reports of what turnout looks like. But the truth is the growth of absentee and early voting has fundamentally remade elections to the point that we may soon be thinking about the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November as “Results Day.”
In 2000, about 14% of all votes we cast before Election Day either through the mail or at polling stations. By 2012 that number was somewhere in the range of 33 percent (according to the U.S. Census) to 35 percent (according to the group Nonprofit Vote).
Whichever estimate you choose that’s a healthy spike. There was a slowdown in the growth in 2012 as some states, such as Florida, limited their early-voting calendars but the percentage of early vote is expected to climb higher as other states open their calendars.
Currently 33 states, plus the District of Columbia, offer some form of early voting. Another 14 states don’t but do offer absentee ballots, though some require the potential voter to provide a reason. Another three states – Washington, Oregon and Colorado – hold their elections through the mail. Those states have no “early voting” per se, but a lot of their tally comes in very early.
Consider Colorado, which did not have an all-mail vote in 2012. The Rocky Mountain State, which is a crucial swing state for 2016, will begin mailing out ballots October 17. Those votes will begin to be tallied October 24. Results won’t be disclosed until Election Day after 7 p.m., but, make no mistake, the election will be well under way on November 8.
What does this all mean for 2016? Remember a campaign’s “closing arguments” have to start earlier. All that candidate barnstorming in the last few weeks may make for good television and good news copy. It may also help bring out voters, but a lot of ballots will already be safely tucked away in the box during those emphatic speeches.
Election Day is still the main event in politics and Election Night is still the moment of the big reveal. But for a growing number of Americans the critical “moment of truth,” when their thoughts and beliefs harden into an actual vote, will happen days or weeks before the big day.