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Voter Turnout Scenarios Full of Drama and Uncertainty

By mail, at polls, in dropboxes, the sheer number of voting possibilities makes predictions impossible.

Unless there is a late, late October surprise that will cast the nation into Joe Biden’s “dark winter” and derail the election, voters have already or are casting ballots in a variety of ways with their choice of candidate secure in their minds. In fact, the United States is primed for an historic early voting turnout – with 60 million early votes already in the queue for counting. To compare, 47 million early ballots were cast in 2016, and folks thought that was a big deal.

The phenomenon is inspiring pundits, talking heads, and number crunchers to predict a massive turnout. One such data voyeur, Michael McDonald, a University of Florida professor who administers the U.S. Elections Project, foretells 2020 will set a record. Can you imagine 65% of eligible voters exercising their constitutional right to vote? That would equate to 150 million Americans.

This year is on track to be the highest turnout since Nov. 3, 1908, a data factoid that demands research.

History Does Repeat

In 1908, William Howard Taft and William Jennings Bryan engaged the electorate with party-line stands on the issues. The Republican Taft’s platform promised a continuation of the administration of Teddy Roosevelt, who was mythologized as the “trustbuster,” the builder of a peace-through-strength nation, and a purveyor of law and order. Taft embraced those Roosevelt characteristics.

William Jennings Bryan, a charismatic orator and a popular Democratic politician, was more commonly known for the Scopes Monkey Trial, as the attorney opposing the instruction of evolution in public schools. Bryan ran for president three times before pursuing other interests, such as publishing the news and hitting the speaking-for-profit circuit.

Bryan took a painful drubbing from Taft in the presidential contest – losing both the popular and the electoral vote (6,409,104-7,678,908; 162-321). As nearly 67% of Americans waded into the political process, Taft dominated the election cycle.

But 2020 might just claim a new American voting record. Or not. Perhaps the rush to vote the ticket is based on circumstances never before seen in other election years, and, when the dust settles, fewer people may end up going to the polls on Election Day. Early tabulation suggests that the number of Democrats who have voted so far vastly outweighs the Republican yield; are GOP voters holding out until election day?

Early Voting

There is a logical explanation for why this may not be an historic electorate turnout: Democrats have been pushing vote by mail now for months while Republicans and President Donald Trump have warned of the likelihood of fraud and pushed for in-person casting of ballots. If both political parties follow this line of thinking, Democrats will be essentially done before Election Day, and Republicans will be at their county precincts in the multi-millions. The great equalizer in McDonald’s gaze into the crystal ball is COVID-19 and the unknown consequences. What if no one braves the lines and crowds on the big day? And we know that those people are mostly voting Democratic and by mail. Perhaps their turnout will resemble a Biden-Harris campaign rally while Nov. 3 will be a parade of Trump voters.

Early voting in masses may also produce an election won in a matter of a few hours. If most of the votes are counted before polls close and are reported at the appropriate time, talking heads may find themselves off the job before midnight Eastern time. Then what? Do they start the discussions in earnest about contesting the results?

It is a mind-boggling political puzzle, and what does it all mean? No amount of crystal ball gazing or rehashing of prior elections will give Americans the answer. But it would be nice if the apathetic voter has indeed gone by the wayside and makes this election an indisputable mandate for the next four years.

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Read more from Sarah Cowgill.

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