I’ve heard one too many times from a Republican operative, “Our votes will come in on Election Day. The numbers are going to change.”
The more I encounter the ‘GOP owns Election Day’ myth, the more frustrated I get.
It’s time not only to come to terms with this defeatist mindset but to embrace new technology and voting methods so we can remain competitive in future elections.
First, let’s debunk that owning Election Day is on its own enough to win.
In 2020, 15 states tracked results by voting method. In state after state, even competitive battleground states, the expectation that Election Day voters will amount to an advantage always turned up short.
In Maryland, Trump dramatically won Election Day with 59% of the vote and a margin of 78K votes only to be crushed by Biden in early and mail ballots, earning just 29% of the early vote. The early/mail margin was over 1MM votes.
In North Carolina, just 16% of voters showed up at the polls on Election Day. While they heavily broke for Trump 65%-35%, Biden focused on absentee by mail winning by 70% and amassing a 421K vote margin. Trump pulled out a win in this state but failed to achieve a majority.
In Pennsylvania, the problem was overwhelming. Despite it being a mostly Election Day voting state with only 38% of ballots cast early, Trump’s massive early vote defeat resulted in a painful loss. He came just 80,000 votes shy out of almost 7MM cast. His 2:1 advantage at the polls just wasn’t enough to overcome the mailbox.
Does the recent election Virginia offer a different outlook? Not really. In many respects, the 2021 Virginia governor’s race looked a lot like Pennsylvania. Only 36% voted early and less than 100K votes decided the outcome. The Democrats won the early vote but fell just short of reaching 60%, ultimately costing them the race. Specifically, the problem was early in-person voting which went only 54% for McAuliffe. The GOP won Election Day voters with 56% but the large advantage only resulted in a near tie. The early vote period was where the race was won and lost and the GOP took a more proactive stance towards mobilizing early vote.
The data is clear that focusing on Election Day to the neglect of early vote is mostly debunked as a strategy for success. When looking at all the states that report results by method of voting, Trump won Election Day voters in all of them but achieved victory in just five. Only about 27% of ballots in the states we analyzed were cast on Election Day, making deficits earned in early voting almost insurmountable challenges simply due to the scarcity of outstanding votes. To win, you have to succeed where the voters are, not where you hope they are.
Second, is there any political value in holding your votes until Election Day? The data says no to that as well.
In 2016, polling by Axios showed that by August, just 8% of voters said there was a chance they may change their minds on who they planned to support. Four years later in August 2020, Pew saw that number fall to just 5%. Quinnipiac placed it as low as 3%. Shockingly, a poll by Newsweek found that 54 percent of likely Trump voters decided more than a year before the election they planned to back him. Biden had similar numbers, with 48 percent — even before Biden officially launched his candidacy. Put another way, by August 95% of voters already were settled on a choice and just waiting for an opportunity to vote. They said they made no difference. Indirectly, we see the power of partisanship. For many races, turnout has overtaken persuasion as the primary strategic objective. And this makes sense – 71 million people voted for Trump despite all the negative hits on him.
We should now understand that ‘owning Election Day’ strategies are from the outset strategic failures. Turnout is the first priority, and a rejection of any tool that makes voting easier should be viewed as a massive failure regardless of which party your gut tells you it benefits.
Finally, if turnout has become the critical factor in separating winners and losers, what strategies can campaigns use to maximize turnout?
The whole campaign strategy should be retooled to fully exploit all opportunities to increase turnout and they should include:
> Changing the focal point of turnout: Currently, GOTV is focused on Election Day with early vote options offered. New tactics could focus on when voting starts rather than when it finishes. Messaging can use terminology such as “Vote on of before” or in place of “Vote on November 3” consider trying “Vote after October 1.”
> Altering the way we talk about early voting and fraud: In many cases, the GOP has framed early voting tools as intentional attempts at creating widespread fraud. Ballot drop boxes, mailing ballots to all voters, and other methods are just seen as ways to increase votes for one party over another. In most states, early voting is probably more secure than what occurs on Election Day. Further, if every loss is simply a written-off as fraud, it means democracy is done for. It’s dangerous for our civic society and our campaigns shouldn’t levy these accusations so lightly.
> Get realistic about fraud: Why do we think that counting millions of votes all at once, on the same day, in many cases without the aid of technology is a way to improve accuracy and reduce fraud? Little proof exists proving that older methods are more secure. They probably aren’t and we just didn’t see enough to know it. Realistically, the impacts of most fraud can be overcome simply by increasing scale. If everyone votes the impact of isolated acts of fraud are naturally mitigated.
> Reinventing EDO tactics: Most campaigns focus their legal teams on Election Day. Disruptions at polling locations, broken machines, lines at the polls, holding locations open past the end of voting, are all traditional EDO priorities for legal teams to tackle. It’s time for EDO to shift its focus to pre-election activities including ballot security, chain of custody, timely counting, and transparency.
> Accepting change is here to stay: Capitalizing on the record-breaking turnout in 2020, 7 states have already announced they intend to make COVID-related voting modifications permanent with many more expanding voting opportunities. Many will argue the political implications of this and work to resist the changes, but it’s a waste of time for consultants. That’s like an army already engaged in combat complaining about the hill they find themselves on. We have to fight to win where we are attacked, not on the battlefield we wish we had. Changing the game is a challenge is reserved for our candidates….after the win.
> Understanding High Turnout is the now the Norm: Since 1980, turnout is trending up. We act surprised every time as if the trend lines aren’t averaging ever upward. As we strategize, we often rely on historical context tracing trend lines backward instead of forwards. What if midterms look more like presidential races? What if that dynamic is here to stay? We’ve had multiple disruptions in election patterns including COVID, the 2020 election, and redistricting. There are few convincing arguments that point at a return to normal. What is up for debate is how much things have changed.
**Blue line is the trendline
> Winning the Turnout Expectations Game: In many localities, early vote turnout is a visible statistic. If Democrats are always ahead in early voting and the first ballots counted are Democrat votes, it creates a perception problem for undecided and late-breaking voters who may be discouraged by negative reporting.
In closing, if we were an army, historians would mock us for our refusal to embrace new weapons for equipping our army. Early voting is an evolution, and it’s time to recognize we are setting ourselves up to make what may be one of the costliest and most common mistakes in history — fighting the last war to win the next one.