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Tom Baxter

Early voting totals reflect the pent-up energies of this pandemic year

Tom Baxter

By Tom Baxter

Over the past couple of elections, data miner Ryan Anderson has churned up lots of interesting information from early voting returns in his blog GeorgiaVotes. This year, like a geologist making the lucky tap that reveals a new rock face, he’s found as clear and clean a line as you’re likely to find in politics.

Anderson sorted early and vote-by-mail voters by their birth year and what kind of ballot, Republican, Democratic or nonpartisan, they requested.

The 142 voters born in 1920 broke, by two votes, for the Democrats. After that, requests for Republican ballots are in the majority all the way up to those born in 1960. Then, just as solidly, the preference column turns blue, all the way from those who will turn 60 next year to the 18-year-olds born in 2002 and voting for the first time.

This information tells us nothing about who’s going to win Tuesday’s primary races, and very little about which party is going to prevail this November. But it is extremely revealing as an indicator of the direction politics is taking in the state.

Older voters remain by far the most dependable group, and they appear to be enthusiastically embracing the trend toward voting by mail or voting early. This year 40 percent of the early voters were 65 or older.

Republicans hold their largest majorities among those now in their 70s and 80s. From a coldly political calculation, they should have the greatest concern about a pandemic disease which is particularly deadly to older voters.

Democrats had an edge in ballot requests of about 36,000 out of nearly 1.9 million total requests, as the Tuesday vote neared. That should be expected, and by itself isn’t very impressive evidence of a Democratic resurgence. The Republicans have some hot open-seat races for Congress, but they aren’t selecting a U.S. Senate nominee. Democrats are also voting for their presidential preference, even though Joe Biden passed the threshold insuring his nomination over the weekend.

This has been a campaign season of unprecedented challenges for the candidates, who have had to connect with their voters at a distance, ask for money while the economy has been tanking and struggle to be heard at a time of titanic social upheaval.

None of these difficulties have dampened interest in the primary at all. We don’t know what turnout will look like on Tuesday, but pre-Election Day voting is more than quadruple what it was at this time for the 2016 primary. In part that’s due to traditional Election Day voters changing their preferences in this pandemic year, but a staggering 69 percent of early voters this year didn’t vote in 2016. They’re new, and unpredictable, voters.

Gwinnett County is sure to be among the most closely watched places after the polls close. Early ballot requests split heavily for the Democrats there, by about 55-40 percent. Gwinnett is the main battleground for the open 7th District race, with big fields in both the Democratic and Republican primaries. It’ll be interesting to see how the big partisan swing there affects the primary outcome in both parties.

There were reports of voters waiting for hours on the last day of early voting Friday, a warning sign of what to expect on Election Day. With new voting machines and pandemic protocols to worry about, Tuesday should be a baptism in fire for Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and his staff. But it’s only a warmup for the challenges they’ll face next November.

Like the George Floyd marches over much of the country, this big surge in early voting could be a result, in part at least, of the pent-up energy and anxieties of the long lockdown, but there’s no way to tell yet what form that will take or who it will favor.

This prolonged primary campaign reaches its conclusion still under the shadow of the pandemic which has made its circumstances unique. In Georgia, reported cases rose steadily until about the third week of April, dropped fairly steadily until the second week, and have remained in an unsteady holding pattern since then.

It’s said that we’ve plateaued, which isn’t much to hang a headline on. The uprisings over Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd now dominate every news cycle, but as a factor in this election year, the sickness remains an ominous presence.

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Tom Baxter
Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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