Democrats surge in early vote by mail returns




Photo by Jim Small | Arizona Mirror

Democrats are returning early ballots at a substantially higher rate than they have in the past two elections, a potentially good sign for them as November approaches, though Republican vote by mail ballots are coming back at higher rates, as well.

According to an analysis by Data Orbital, a Republican campaign consulting and polling firm, Democrats have returned their early ballots for the Aug. 4 primary election at about the same rate as Republicans, even though there are about 93,000 more Republicans in Arizona.

Data Orbital’s new election data dashboard shows that, as of Monday, Democrats had returned about 195,000 early ballots, compared to 193,000 Republican ballots. At the same time in 2018, 14 days before the primary election, Democrats had returned about 150,000 ballots; in 2016, they had only returned around 102,000.

Republicans’ numbers are ahead of where they were at this point in the past two elections, as well, though not by as much. GOP voters had only returned 176,000 ballots 14 days before the 2018 election and 122,000 at this point before the 2016 primary.

George Khalaf, president of Data Orbital, said the statewide numbers may be a bit misleading because not every county updates its ballot count each day. Pima County, a Democratic stronghold, will likely report new numbers on Wednesday, he said, while most rural counties, which strongly favor Republicans, are expected to report at the end of the week.

Ultimately, Khalaf said Republicans are likely leading in early ballot returns, but Democrats are well ahead of where they would normally be. He said polling shows high enthusiasm among voters of both parties. 

About 70,000 more ballots have been returned than at this point in 2018.

“It’s not that the Republicans have gotten worse. It’s just the Democrats have gotten better,” Khalaf said.

Khalaf said the most telling number is in Maricopa County, which updates its count regularly. In 2016, Republican early ballot returns led Democrats by more than 20 percentage points, and the GOP was ahead by nearly 14 points at this stage two years ago. Now, Democrats lag by just 2 percentage points, with about 133,000 early ballots returned to the GOP’s 139,000.

The increased Democratic turnout isn’t uniform. Khalaf cited the 6th Congressional District, which covers north Phoenix and Scottsdale, as one area where Democratic turnout has spiked notably. 

Khalaf said it’s too early to tell whether the numbers are a good sign for Democrats in November, “but if these percentages hold through next week, it could be.”

If Republicans are more wary of early ballots than Democrats are, there may be a couple reasons. Khalaf said there’s increased anxiety among GOP voters about ballot fraud, which he partially attributed to concerns over ballots in Maricopa County — instructions on early ballots in Maricopa state that voters can now cross out a candidate’s name if they mark the wrong bubble, and the instruction sheet says only to use black ink on ballots, while the instructions on the ballots themselves say to use either blue or black ink.

Perhaps more notably, President Donald Trump has spent months railing against voting by mail, claiming without evidence that it will increase voting fraud. He tweeted on Tuesday that mail-in voting “will lead to the most CORRUPT ELECTION in our Nation’s History!”

The Arizona Republican Party retweeted the president’s message.

Actual election fraud related to mail-in ballots is very rare, according to election officials in states where elections are conducted mostly or exclusively by mail. In Arizona, where the overwhelming majority of votes are cast via early ballot, the Attorney General’s Office has only prosecuted 20 cases of voting fraud in the past decade, most of which involved double voting in multiple states. 

Election officials in Oregon, Utah and Washington, which have all-mail elections, say cases of fraud are extremely rare.

“There’s lots of fear around ballot fraud and things. And whether it’s warranted or not, it’s just really relevant in Republican circles,” Khalaf said.

Jeremy Duda
Associate Editor Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. 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.”