Voting Methodology's New Normal

Under The Hood

In just a few short years, the voting patterns of Democrats and Republicans have become wildly different in recent years. That was on display in the Aug. 23 primary election, where you can see the different ways that ballots were cast by Republican voters and by Democratic ones. And differences in behavior have become so dramatic the phenomenon has challenged political observers and participants alike in even gauging the lay of the land.

For example, Primary Day has almost become a formality for Democrats in Florida. Few outcomes will be decided by those who wait until the last day to cast votes in a race, which not so long ago was when almost everybody waited to vote. But in Sarasota County, 34,610 Democrats voted by mail and another 3,912 participated in early voting. By comparison, only 8,903 waited to vote on Aug. 23 at the polls.

I don’t mean to overstate things. Those mail ballots can be cast at any point until polls close, including by voters who walk their ballots in right up until the last second. But those Democratic candidates flagging down voters outside the precinct will be lucky find voters who can even cast a ballot in their election. Less than 19% of voters still do so. And not that many are using the ability to vote in-person early.  Almost 73% of Democrats in Sarasota cast their ballots in August at a tabletop instead of a polling station.

By comparison, more than 45% of Republicans did not cast their ballot until polls opened on Aug. 23. That 12-hour span was the frame of time when the outcomes of a number of critical races were decided (I discussed a couple weeks ago how the School Board races completed flipped based on Primary Day turnout alone).

We saw 28,319 registered Republicans in the county come out to vote at the polls, compared to 24,388 who voted by mail. A total of 6,654 took advantage of early voting. A decade ago, Republicans could be relied upon to vote be mail in numbers. Many attribute former President Trump’s disparagement of mail voting as a reason for the shift. That said, it should be noted that more than 39% of GOP voters still cast their ballot in an postage-paid envelope so it’s not like all voters abandoned this message.

Still, in-person voting on the day ballots are counted is the preference of Republicans alone. About 57% of voters without any party voted by mail if they voted at all. Less than 10% chose early voting. Similar trends could be found with third-party voters.

For people like me who spend election day trying to figure the right moment to say an election is settled, this has created a strange new dynamic, one that will be much worse in a General Election where all voters participate. Early returns, which in Florida include only mail-in and early votes, inevitably make it look like Democrats are doing better than the final results will show. And sometimes you can’t tell how well Republicans are doing until well into the evening. 

But this isn’t just a frustration for reporters. Political consultants budget get-out-the-vote efforts, and with party lines now dictating even how each of us votes, it makes targeting more difficult.

I don’t know if this benefits one side or the other. I have wondered if Democrats felt smug in August about their out-sized success in rallying vote-by-mail, and I knew Republicans who felt absolutely sunk about how bad turnout appeared until the morning of Aug. 23. Those feelings all turned out to be unfounded. And when votes shift so much in the day, it inevitably breeds conspiracy theories, though trends prove those unwarranted.

But this does appear to be the new normal, one that didn’t disappear over the last two years and likely won’t let up soon.

Jacob Ogles is a contributing senior editor for SRQ MEDIA who has been covering business, politics and community issues for SRQ Magazine and SRQ DAILY since 2008. He also contributes the Under The Hood column which appears in the Saturday Perspectives edition of SRQ DAILY offering a twice-monthly analysis of the driving forces behind Sarasota-Manatee politics. 

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