DANIEL VAUGHAN: Who votes in a pandemic?

In-person early voting will wrap up this week for most states that allow it, just before everyone resets and gets ready for the main show: Election Day.

Mail-in and absentee ballots will continue trickling in. But the big question mark remains for Election Day: Who shows up?

Typically, when we ask a question like that, it’s about turnout. What voter groups show up to vote? According to pollsters, expect a record turnout election.

And by record turnout, I don’t just mean raw numbers, which should go up continually due to population increases. Record turnout for 2020 means a higher percentage of the overall population, which means more engaged voters cast ballots in this election. Predictions range upward of 65%, which would beat former record years like 2008.

Contrary to popular belief, higher turnout doesn’t benefit one party over the other. FiveThirtyEight and others have written numerous articles pointing out the various ways higher turnout numbers can help Democrats and Republicans. Lower turnout elections only benefiting Republicans is a myth. If more people are voting than ever before, that suggests more new voters cast a ballot too, and we don’t have any idea how they’ll swing the election.

These factors are educational by themselves, but what makes them interesting is when you combine them with 2020; all these circumstances are coalescing in the middle of a global pandemic. If 2020 is, indeed, a record-setting election year, then we should acknowledge that Americans are voting in droves while braving COVID-19, a virus that has disrupted every facet of society for eight solid months.

That brings us to the No. 1 unknown factor heading into Election Day: Who will show up, in person, on Election Day, while new COVID-19 cases are dramatically spiking across the country, hospitalization counts approach former peaks, and the number of deaths is climbing?

Data compiled by the non-partisan COVID Tracking Project shows the seven-day average for new cases is headed above the spikes we experienced in the spring or the summer. Part of this latest spike is due to the millions of tests we’re running every week, far more than we had in the spring or summer.

But even with more tests, the main point is still valid: people will head into voting booths in the middle of a significant spike of a virus that’s already causing another round of shutdowns across Europe, and potentially here.

We have, admittedly, little data on this point, but when Wisconsin held their primaries back on April 7, scientists found no evidence that the election caused a spike in COVID-19 cases across the state. In fact, according to Fox News, they went so far as to say, “Our initial hypothesis of an increase in COVID-19 activity following the live election was not supported.”

The issue with the elections isn’t so much whether or not they spread the virus further. The unanswerable question we have right now is: What kind of voter heads to the polls, on Election Day, in the middle of a spiking pandemic virus? Does the virus influence who shows up? Does it change what the top issues are for voters when they cast their ballot?

We’ve never had an election quite like this one, where we know a major event will occur on Election Day, and we have no historical parallels to rely on when making predictions.

We do know there is a partisan split on mail-in ballots. More Democrats claim they’ll vote by mail instead of in-person than ever before. But while that’s a novel observation, political scientists point out that the impact of mail-in voting has virtually no effect on the outcome of races. Science Magazine reports:

[Researchers] found that in presidential and midterm general elections between 1996 and 2018, switching to all-mail voting increased the percentage of residents who voted by 1.8% to 2.9%, they report today in Science Advances. When it came to the Democratic share of the vote, they found a tiny uptick in the share of votes that went to Democratic candidates for Congress, governor, and president — approximately 0.7%.

But the difference was so small that the margin of statistical error means it’s possible there was no effect at all, Holbein says. “There might be a teensy, tiny effect on Democratic turnout.”

So if mail-in ballots don’t have much of an impact on the race, where should we look for one? Election Day.

If trend lines hold, Election Day will fall in the middle of a coronavirus spike. Trump voters already claim, overwhelmingly, that they prefer to vote in-person on Election Day. If that holds, does the virus impact the outcome?

It’s easy to envision a scenario where one campaign experiences a slump on Election Day. If Trump voters don’t show up in the numbers required due to the virus, it could make any Biden lead from early voting insurmountable. On the other hand, if the virus scares away Biden voters from showing up on Election Day, it could allow Trump to run up the score if his voters show up with no problem.

If you’re the Biden campaign, Biden’s message of a “dark winter,” could cause concern because it may dampen Democratic voters’ enthusiasm. Again, there’s no playbook or history on how this all turns out. Maybe it has no impact at all, and Biden coasts to victory with the same lead he’s had since the spring. Or possibly, the virus dramatically alters what kind of voter shows up in a pandemic.

We’ll find out in a few short days.

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