By the end of early voting on Monday night, elections officials in the United States had received 100,200,000 ballots, a record-setting amount representing more than 70% of the total number of votes cast in the entire 2016 presidential election, leading many experts to predict that an energized electorate will set an all-time record for total ballots cast in 2020.
According to CNN, six states (Texas, Hawaii, Nevada, Washington, Arizona and Montana) surpassed their total 2016 voter turnout prior to Tuesday.
At least seven additional states (North Carolina, Oregon, Colorado, New Mexico, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee) have surpassed 90% of their 2016 turnout.
The total number of votes cast is projected to range from 142 million to 150 million (62%–65% of eligible voters), according to data scientist Andrew Therriault.
Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com forecasted last week that the total election turnout would be around 154 million, with an 80th-percentile range between 144 million and 165 million.
In 2016, approximately 138 million Americans voted (the highest total to date), with 58.8 million of those votes cast before Election Day.
This year, many states have expanded in-person early voting and mail-in ballots due to safety concerns associated with the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed the lives of more than 231,000 Americans. The early voting returns in many areas, including several swing states, overwhelmingly favor Democratic candidates.
As of Tuesday morning, among those states that provide party registration data, registered Democrats had returned nearly 22 million ballots, while Republicans had returned fewer than 15 million. Another 11.6 million returned ballots list no party affiliation. According to the U.S. Elections Project, 35.7 million people voted early in person, and 64 million cast early ballots by mail.
“I’m going to vote like my life depends on it,” said Marilyn Crowder, a 60-year-old Philadelphia resident.
82.6%. That was the record-setting eligible voter turnout rate in the 1876 presidential election when Rutherford Hayes defeated Samuel Tilden. When Abraham Lincoln won in 1860, 81.8% of eligible citizens cast a vote.
With voting underway across the U.S., officials are bracing for a day of mischief and mayhem—polling hiccups, malfunctions, voter intimidation and civil unrest—here’s what’s happened so far.
Election officials across the country are warning of an unidentified robocall advising Americans to “stay safe and stay home” on Election Day, which has reportedly reached out to 10 million voters in the past several weeks.
The FBI is investigating those robocalls, according to CNN, which reported on air that calls have been received by voters in New York, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska and North Carolina.
In Pittsburgh, a poll worker was ordered to be removed after fellow elections staff complained that the worker was looking at ballots prior to their scanning and taking video of the polling place, according to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter.
Also in Pittsburgh, one polling place wasn’t able to open on time since an election official’s car was stolen that contained a suitcase with a polling book, keys and other materials, according to the Post-Gazette reporter, but the site was later able to open with authorities arresting five suspects.
In Philadelphia, the district attorney’s office rebuked allegations circulating online about a pro-Democrat campaign poster on the outside of a polling station, calling misinformation about what would be an illegal violation “deliberately deceptive.”
Voters in Michigan and Iowa have been receiving threatening live calls telling them to stay home or face arrest at the polls, according to the office of Michigan’s attorney general, while Flint residents have also been targeted with robocalls advising them to vote on Wednesday because of long lines (those votes would not count).
In Kansas City, Missouri, a World War I memorial being used as a poll location was vandalized with the words “Don’t vote” and “Fight revolution” overnight; this comes after gravestones in a Jewish cemetery in Michigan were spray-painted with the words “TRUMP” and “MAGA” and residents of Roseville, Calif. reported “creepy” blue dots on the front homes with Biden-Harris campaign signs.
A federal court ordered the U.S. Postal Service to “sweep” postal facilities to locate any lingering ballots in battleground states, which have seen delays in the days leading up to the election, to be sent out immediately.
Republicans in Pennsylvania asked a federal court to block Democratic-leaning Montgomery County from contacting voters to correct issues with their mail-in ballots and requested the county throw away any defective ballots or those that have been cured in a Tuesday lawsuit.
In a move that’s expected to delay statewide reporting of election results, North Carolina’s State Board of Election voted to keep four polling places open longer because of early morning delays.
In Harris County, Texas, the state’s most populous county which includes Houston, all but one of 10 drive-thru voting locations were shut by county clerk Chris Hollins, who didn’t want the votes—at the center of a so-far failed legal challenge—to be jeopardized.
Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County has said it will delay counting mail-in ballots arriving after 8 p.m. on Election Day in case the U.S. Supreme Court rules to overturn a three-day extension to count ballots previously green-lit by both the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court (the Supreme Court could agree to hear these arguments, but only after Election Day).
The coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on the voting process, resulting in new procedures that may complicate Election Day. According to the Associated Press, around 300 lawsuits have already been filed about the election, including many concerning coronavirus-induced changes like drop boxes, signatures and secrecy envelopes. Local officials and police are also preparing for disruption and violence throughout the day, including the potential emergence of thousands of partisan poll watchers called for by President Trump. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) has warned of heightened militia activity in key battleground states, including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In anticipation of unrest, businesses in many U.S. cities have boarded up their storefronts, while a “non-scalable” fence has been constructed around the White House.
While voter suppression efforts are making it harder to vote in places like Texas, Georgia and Florida, one strategy makes voting during the pandemic a little easier: voting from your hospital bed.
With Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations spiking, hospital-room voting has become especially relevant in 2020.
Patients and family members staying with them are often surprised to learn that they can vote from the hospital, said Dr. Kelly Wong, resident physician in emergency medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and founder of Patient Voting, a nonpartisan organization that helps hospitalized patients and family members vote.
As a medical student in her home state of South Dakota during the 2016 election, Wong noticed a surprising and potentially dangerous pattern: sick patients were delaying trips to the emergency room or arguing against being admitted to the hospital because they didn’t want to miss the chance to vote.
Wong thought patients shouldn’t have to choose between voting and their health.
But she didn’t know the process for registered voters to vote from the hospital; she didn’t even know there was a process. When she found it was possible, she realized how difficult it was to figure out how to do it.
She was not alone.
“The biggest barrier to patient voting is that they don’t know they can,” Wong said.
In 2018, she founded Patient Voting to close the knowledge gap—just in time for the midterm elections.
The group now publishes state-specific processes for all 50 states, and operates with volunteers in 38 states. They partner with 25 medical schools and 15 hospitals in eight states—including battleground states of Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania where the 2020 presidential candidates are fighting for every vote.
Wong keeps the organization staunchly nonpartisan. Her motivation is to safeguard patients’ health.
“I joke that in a selfish way, this is a way that patients don’t have to leave the hospital,” Wong said. “If they can accomplish their priorities while staying in the hospital, that’s good for their health.”
This year, voting is a priority for many Americans.
“This is a really defining moment in our history,” said Dr. Sarah Welsh, medical director of the pediatric intensive care unit at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Rhode Island. “It is our duty as citizens not only to vote ourselves, but to lift our heads up and realize that there are others around us that we interact with on a daily basis that would have limitations.”
Hospitalized patients, or those who are in and out of hospitals with chronic illnesses, may be especially vulnerable to being disenfranchised, according to Dr. Alison Hayward, faculty advisor and board member of Patient Voting and assistant professor of emergency medicine at Brown. “Those people need to have their voices heard because there are huge issues at stake that will really affect their lives.”
A Small Army
In June, Brown University medical students Katie Barry and Meghan McCarthy, both 23, signed on as national medical student coordinators for Patient Voting.
“We are really interested in helping to empower patients, especially those who otherwise might have their voices not heard or overlooked,” said Barry. She realized Covid-19 was not going to be gone by November. “I wanted to help out in any way I could.”
According to Barry and McCarthy, the current generation of doctors in training are especially focused on social determinants of health such as civil rights, housing, and food.
“Along with biology and science, there’s a big emphasis on the social factors that affect some patients’ health,” McCarthy said. “It’s hard to ignore once we get into the hospitals how all these factors affect your patients’ health.”
Barry agreed. “We realize now that in order to care for people, we need to do more than provide the medical care.”
Patient Voting is getting some help to spread the word about hospital-room voting. At Hasbro Children’s Hospital, Patient Voting is newly embedded into the interface patients use to watch TV and get health and hospital information.
GetWellNetwork, a patient engagement company that provides digital health technology and serves 10 million patients a year in 700 hospitals and clinics nationwide, operates that platform.
The company jumped on the opportunity to help enable parents vote so they wouldn’t have to leave their child’s bedside. GetWellNetwork incorporated Patient Voting into the platform within a day of hearing about the program.
“Our whole philosophy is to help people take an active role in their journey,” said Michael O’Neil, Jr., GetWellNetwork’s founder and CEO.
The company takes what is a typically powerless human experience and uses digital tools to “put the patient in the pilot’s seat,” O’Neil said.
Partnering to enable patient voting fits their philosophy. “It’s a perfect opportunity to spring into action and follow this notion of empowerment,” O’Neil said. “It just happens to be in the context of voting in this case.”
It’s Not Too Late
In the run-up to the election, Patient Voting has experienced a frenzy of requests for help, though it’s not clear how many people vote this way. After the 2018 midterms, Wong and her team contacted state boards of elections to gather such data; they found that most states do not track the number of ballots from hospitalized voters.
Wong herself is spending part of Monday requesting an emergency absentee ballot on behalf of a patient in Rhode Island. She wouldn’t be allowed to do that everywhere; in North Carolina, for example, healthcare employees are prohibited from witnessing emergency absentee ballots.
“I see how thankful people are when they’re able to get the information they needed to be able to vote,” said Hayward, who has been responding to patient and family inquiries. “It feels really good to be involved in a nonpartisan effort in this time…Everyone wants to be able to vote and to have their voice heard.”
If you’re looking for the right to vote, you won’t find it in the United States Constitution or the Bill of Rights.
The Bill of Rights recognizes the core rights of citizens in a democracy, including freedom of religion, speech, press and assembly. It then recognizes several insurance policies against an abusive government that would attempt to limit these liberties: weapons; the privacy of houses and personal information; protections against false criminal prosecution or repressive civil trials; and limits on excessive punishments by the government.
But the framers of the Constitution never mentioned a right to vote. They didn’t forget – they intentionally left it out. To put it most simply, the founders didn’t trust ordinary citizens to endorse the rights of others.
They were creating a radical experiment in self-government paired with the protection of individual rights that are often resented by the majority. As a result, they did not lay out an inherent right to vote because they feared rule by the masses would mean the destruction of – not better protection for – all the other rights the Constitution and Bill of Rights uphold. Instead, they highlighted other core rights over the vote, creating a tension that remains today.
Relying on the elite to protect minority rights
Many of the rights the founders enumerated protect small groups from the power of the majority – for instance, those who would say or publish unpopular statements, or practice unpopular religions, or hold more property than others. James Madison, a principal architect of the U.S. Constitution and the drafter of the Bill of Rights, was an intellectual and landowner who saw the two as strongly linked.
At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Madison expressed the prevailing view that “the freeholders of the country would be the safest depositories of republican liberty,” meaning only people who owned land debt-free, without mortgages, would be able to vote. The Constitution left voting rules to individual states, which had long-standing laws limiting the vote to those freeholders.
In the debates over the ratification of the Constitution, Madison trumpeted a benefit of the new system: the “total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity.” Even as the nation shifted toward broader inclusion in politics, Madison maintained his view that rights were fragile and ordinary people untrustworthy. In his 70s, he opposed the expansion of the franchise to nonlanded citizens when it was considered at Virginia’s Constitutional Convention in 1829, emphasizing that “the great danger is that the majority may not sufficiently respect the rights of the Minority.”
The founders believed that freedoms and rights would require the protection of an educated elite group of citizens, against an intolerant majority. They understood that protected rights and mass voting could be contradictory.
Scholarship in political science backs up many of the founders’ assessments. One of the field’s clear findings is that elites support the protection of minority rights far more than ordinary citizens do. Research has also shown that ordinary Americans are remarkably ignorant of public policies and politicians, lacking even basic political knowledge.
Is there a right to vote?
What Americans think of as the right to vote doesn’t reside in the Constitution, but results from broad shifts in American public beliefs during the early 1800s. The new states that entered the union after the original 13 – beginning with Vermont, Kentucky and Tennessee – did not limit voting to property owners. Many of the new state constitutions also explicitly recognized voting rights.
As the nation grew, the idea of universal white male suffrage – championed by the commoner-President Andrew Jackson – became an article of popular faith, if not a constitutional right.
After the Civil War, the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, guaranteed that the right to vote would not be denied on account of race: If some white people could vote, so could similarly qualified nonwhite people. But that still didn’t recognize a right to vote – only the right of equal treatment. Similarly, the 19th Amendment, now 100 years old, banned voting discrimination on the basis of sex, but did not recognize an inherent right to vote.
Debates about voting rights
Today, the country remains engaged in a long-running debate about what counts as voter suppression versus what are legitimate limits or regulations on voting – like requiring voters to provide identification, barring felons from voting or removing infrequent voters from the rolls.
These disputes often invoke an incorrect assumption – that voting is a constitutional right protected from the nation’s birth. The national debate over representation and rights is the product of a long-run movement toward mass voting paired with the longstanding fear of its results.
The nation has evolved from being led by an elitist set of beliefs toward a much more universal and inclusive set of assumptions. But the founders’ fears are still coming true: Levels of support for the rights of opposing parties or people of other religions are strikingly weak in the U.S. as well as around the world.
Americans may have come to believe in a universal vote, but that value does not come from the Constitution, which saw a different path to the protection of rights.