Post-Election Day gains for Dem candidates are the norm, not the 2018 exception

By: - March 1, 2019 3:25 pm

U.S. Senator Kyrsten Sinema speaking at the 2019 Legislative Forecast Luncheon hosted by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry. Photo by Gage Skidmore | Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

The post-Election Day shift toward Democrats that flipped the outcomes of several major races in 2018 wasn’t abnormal. While it marks the first time in the past decade that races had lead changes several days after the election, an Arizona Mirror analysis finds that Democrats consistently gain ground on Republicans among ballots counted after Election Day.

Democratic candidates in Arizona gained more ground than usual in 2018, a year that saw massive Democratic gains nationwide as the party capitalized on President Donald Trump’s unpopularity.

A large portion of those ballots counted in the days after Election Day are early ballots that voters drop off at polling places instead of mailing back to elections officials. In 2018, there were 228,000 such ballots.

The Mirror‘s analysis of election records shows that virtually every statewide race since 2010 has seen ballots counted after Election Day favor Democrats. In 21 of 22 statewide contests during those general elections, the Republican candidates’ margins of victory shrank after Election Day. The trend held true in races for governor, secretary of state, attorney general, state treasurer, superintendent of public instruction, mine inspector. U.S. Senate and president.

The only difference between 2018 and the general elections that preceded it is that Democrats took the lead from Republicans in some races.

Republican legislators this year have introduced several proposals that would curb early voting, including one that would have barred people from dropping off early ballots at polling places on Election Day.

On election night in November, Republicans held narrow leads in the races for U.S. Senate, secretary of state, superintendent of public instruction and both Corporation Commission seats. But in the subsequent days, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema pulled ahead of Republican Martha McSally for Arizona’s open Senate seat. Similar scenes played out as Katie Hobbs defeated Steve Gaynor to become secretary of state, Kathy Hoffman topped Frank Riggs in the race for superintendent and Sandra Kennedy took the lead over Rodney Glassman to reclaim her old seat on the Corporation Commission.

Republicans were dismayed at the rare statewide losses. The GOP hadn’t lost a Senate race in Arizona since 1988. A Democrat last won the Secretary of State’s Office and the superintendent’s post in 1990.

For some Republicans, dismay quickly morphed into suspicion, as the lead changes fueled baseless conspiracy theories about voter fraud and stolen elections, especially in Maricopa County.

In the preliminary findings of a self-styled audit of the election in Maricopa County that the Arizona Republican Party commissioned, attorney Stephen Richer opened not with his findings or a recitation of the various allegations against County Recorder Adrian Fontes, but with the lead changes in the races for Senate, secretary of state and superintendent. Richer said the final outcomes “left many Arizona voters confused and upset, especially Arizona Republicans who felt as though they’d had the rug pulled out from under them.”

Several Republican lawmakers said the length of the vote-counting process, which lasted nearly two weeks, undermined their constituents’ confidence in the election process. That lack of confidence served as the rationale for proposed legislation to change Arizona’s election laws.

Former Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell, who served from 1989-2017, said the county didn’t take longer than usual to count ballots in 2018, and that it always takes about two weeks. Unlike 2018, people didn’t care in the previous elections because no outcomes changed as the count went on, she said.

However, voters might be less confused or suspicious after examining how the margins of victory changed in several races in the previous four general elections.

When vote-counting ended late on election night last year, Sinema trailed by slightly less than 1 percentage point. She ultimately won by 2.34 percentage points, a swing 3.26 points, or 71,808 votes. Hobbs turned a 2.5-point deficit into a 0.87-point win. Hoffman trailed by less than half-a-point before winning by 3.12 percentage points.

Losing Democratic candidates saw similar shifts, though in their cases, it wasn’t enough to overcome their election night deficits. In the race for attorney general, January Contreras closed the gap against Republican incumbent Mark Brnovich from 6.7 points to 3.48 points. Democratic mine inspector hopeful Bill Pierce lost by 3.48 points after trailing on election night by 6.6 points. Mark Manoil, the Democratic candidate for state treasurer, gained 2.68 percentage points on Republican Kimberly Yee, who still won by a healthy margin of 8.56 points. Even David Garcia, whom Gov. Doug Ducey trounced as he cruised to re-election, gained 3.49 percentage points, which only got him a 14.16-point loss.

Garcia’s post-Election Day gain was larger than the gains made by Sinema and Hobbs, and just a few tenths of a point less than Hoffman’s.

Those shifts are more than statewide Democratic candidates experienced in previous years. But past elections still saw the same trend.

In 2016, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton saw a much more modest gain of a quarter of a percentage point. The 2012 election saw Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Richard Carmona cut Republican Jeff Flake’s lead in half, from just under 6 percentage points to 3 points, while President Barack Obama gained 3.47 points on Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Not counting Corporation Commission races, 21 of the last 22 statewide contests going back to 2010 saw Democrats gain ground on their Republican opponents after Election Day. The only statewide race in the past five general elections in which that didn’t happen was in the 2016 U.S. Senate race, where John McCain gained a percentage point in his double-digit victory over Ann Kirkpatrick.

Despite being the biggest Republican wave year in a generation, the 2010 election also saw Democrats narrow their Republican opponents’ leads in statewide races during post-Election Day ballot counting, though not by as much as in the “blue wave” of 2018. Democrat Terry Goddard gained nearly 2 percentage points on Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, who won handily. Every other statewide Democratic candidate, except U.S. Senate nominee Rodney Glassman, gained at least 1 percentage point between Election Day and the statewide canvass.

The average statewide Democratic candidate gained 3.23 percentage points over his or her Republican opponent in last year’s election. That was actually smaller than the average Democratic gain in 2012, which stood at 3.28 percentage points. Democrats saw smaller gains in other years, picking up an average of 1.3 percentage points in 2010, 0.65 points in 2014 and 0.61 percent in 2016.

Overall, the average Democratic gain between Election Day and the canvass since 2010 is 1.55 percentage points.

When elections officials count ballots, they start with the early ballots received prior to Election Day. Next to be tabulated are the ballots cast at polling places that day. Finally, they tackle the provisional ballots and early ballots that were received in the mail on Election Day or that voters dropped off in person that day.

Helen Purcell, who served as Maricopa County recorder from 1989 to 2017, said Republicans tend to vote earlier, while Election Day voters — both those who cast ballots at polling places and those who drop off early ballots that they haven’t yet mailed in — tend to skew toward Democrats. As a result, she said it’s common for Democratic candidates to chip away at Republicans’ leads.

“It’s not unusual that there is a big change, not when you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of ballots that are out there,” Purcell said.

Andy Barr, a Democratic political consultant, also said Democrats and younger voters tend to hold onto their early ballots longer, while older and more conservative voters are more likely to vote earlier. Independents and undecided voters tend to vote later, as well, said Republican campaign consultant Paul Bentz. That creates a dynamic in which votes that are counted after Election Day tend to favor Democrats.

Barr said Democratic campaigns understand that they’ll gain ground in the post-Election Day counting.

“On election night, those of us who were looking at the returns pretty much knew Kyrsten was going to win,” he said.

For example, Carmona, whose campaign Barr worked on, went into Election Day in 2012 assuming that if he trailed by no more than 4 percentage points at the end of the night, the race would be winnable. Ultimately, Flake led by about 6 points, and Carmona was only able to narrow the gap to 3 points.

Bentz noted that, after the first batch of early ballots came in during 2018, Democrats gained ground in just about every subsequent batch that elections officials received.

“I don’t see anything that’s different than the trend we’ve seen in the past. It’s probably a larger quantity of voters. We absolutely saw a surge in the number of voters,” he said.

Data analysis and visualization by Jim Small

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Jeremy Duda previously served as the Mirror's associate Editor. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”