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What to know about early voting in the 2020 presidential primaries

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The very first vote in the Democratic presidential primaries may have been cast in Minneapolis last week. On the night of January 16, Davis Senseman was in a parking lot outside a voting center with four friends, all of whom were aiming to be among the first to vote. 

Senseman is one of about 4,500 Minnesotan voters so far to have taken advantage of early voting, which began January 17. Vermont began its own statewide early vote the next day, less than two weeks before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries. California, another Super Tuesday state, is launching its early voting and mail-in ballot period on the day of the Iowa caucuses.  

Within the same month of the Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada voting contests, more than ten states will have begun their early voting periods: Colorado, North Carolina, Texas, Illinois, Massachusetts, Idaho and Michigan, among others.

Here's a look at three states where voters can cast their ballots early.


There are caveats to being the "first" early voting state, said Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon. New Hampshire began sending absentee ballots for military voters in late December 2019, and Oklahoma did the same in early January. 

Simon pointed out that Minnesota is the first to open early voting to any eligible voter. Even for those who are not registered, voters can register, complete an absentee application and cast their ballot all in one day. 

For the past few decades, Minnesota has not opted to hold a presidential primary election. It has been a caucus state and hasn't held a primary of this type since 1956. Simon said one reason for the switch was the caucuses were a "victim of their own success" because of overwhelming turnout at caucus centers.

Voters hoping to get their ballots in early can do so in person, as Senseman and his friends did, or fill out an application online or in paper for a mail-in ballot. Simon said the percentage of early votes in state elections has tripled from 8% in 2013 to 24% in 2018, but this year will be the first time early voting will be put to the test in a presidential cycle.

"Before, it was just those activists who had the ability to show up to a caucus. Now it's really the statewide electorate, and so there's more incentive for that kind of thing, and we think we're going to see it," he said.


Vermont began its early-voting period on January 18. Voters can walk into their town clerk's office to vote in person or request a ballot to be mailed to them, as long as they return the ballots before polls close on March 3.  

After Congress passed the MOVE Act in 2009, which required absentee ballots for military voters at least 45 days before an election, the state decided to allow any eligible voter to use them. Within the first week of this period, 2,300 ballots have been cast or requested from Vermont voters.

Secretary of State Jim Condos said because of the state's automatic voter registration, 93% of eligible voters are already registered. Vermont offers same-day registration for early voters, which was not available in the 2016 election. 


About 15 million ballots will be sent out to voters in California on February 3, the same day as the Iowa caucuses. Voters can request a mail-in ballot to fill out at home, drop off at a county ballot box or at a voting center.

"More vote-by-mail ballots will be sent out in California than (to) the populations of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada — combined," Secretary of State Alex Padilla said. "The California presidential primary may be on Super Tuesday, but for millions of Californians, it's really Super February."

2020 brings the expansion of the state's Voter's Choice Act, passed in 2016 to automatically mail registered voters a ballot. Because fifteen counties will implement it, up from five in 2018, state officials expect a higher early-voter turnout.

During the last presidential primaries in California, more than 8.5 million votes came from mail-in ballots — roughly 59% of the overall votes, according to the secretary of state's office. That percentage grew to 68% in 2018.

"In California, three quarters of our voters now are getting vote by mail so it is increasingly becoming more representative of the full electorate," said Paul Mitchell, who runs Political Data Inc., a nonpartisan data vendor.

The state has 416 delegates up for grabs on Super Tuesday. While the final count of ballots, including late ballots counted up to a month later, determine the exact number of delegates, Mitchell said the early vote plays a big part of calling the projected winner on Super Tuesday.

"The Wednesday morning number is a combination of poll voters and early voters," he said. "The early stuff is going to impact what people really think of as the benefits of winning California on Super Tuesday. The mold is going to be set from the results of those earlier voters."

Impact of early voting

Mitchell said while people can "easily read too much into" the early vote, it's still a good way to take "the temperature of the electorate as it develops." 

In California's 2016 Democratic presidential primaries, Hillary Clinton beat Bernie Sanders by about 8 percentage points. According to Mitchell's voter data, Clinton had a 7 percentage-point advantage over Sanders when it came to the early vote ballots.

Simon said the ebb and flow of the Democratic field is an interesting factor for early voters, since candidates could drop out before Super Tuesday.

"There may be someone who is on fire to vote for a candidate that they really, really support. But who knows if their candidate will even be in the race by March 3? So, my sense is people are hedging their bets and waiting a little bit," said Simon. 

Everyone in Senseman's group, except for Senseman's son, voted for Elizabeth Warren. To Senseman, the benefit of getting votes in early is the time it saves.

"When you get 100,000 calls or emails or texts, you can always just say I already voted. Then they don't have to spend time on you," Senseman said. "If I get it done right away, then I don't have to worry about anything that happens."

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