This fall, Logan Dancey, an associate professor at Wesleyan University, asked his students to work with three other schools to comb the websites of candidates for state Senate in Georgia, Minnesota and Connecticut.
He was curious about how candidates featured issues like voting on their websites.
“How to register to vote. How to request an absentee ballot. How to fill out an absentee ballot. Obviously, a lot of voting is happening absentee or by mail this year as a result of the pandemic,” Dancey said. “One of the main things that the students found is the Democratic websites were much more likely to have this link to voter information than were the Republican websites.”
Dancey cautions that the sample size and time period of his study were limited. But data from Connecticut’s secretary of the state show that, with roughly one week to go until Election Day, nearly 500,000 registered voters have already cast an absentee ballot this presidential election.
That’s about 1 out of every 5 registered voters in Connecticut, a massive surge in absentee voting that’s notable for some major partisan differences.
Nearly 40% of all registered Democrats have requested an absentee ballot this election cycle. That’s almost double the rate of request for registered Republicans and unaffiliated voters. And Democrats are returning them at slightly higher rates, too.
About 78% for Democrats and about 70% for Republicans and unaffiliated voters.
Which party ultimately benefits from all this early voting? The answer is difficult to parse, said Mara Suttmann-Lea, an assistant professor at Connecticut College who studies election administration.
For one thing, while this level of voting by mail is new to Connecticut, it’s been around in other parts of the country for decades.
“This is something that both parties have been doing for a long time,” Suttmann-Lea said, citing reforms in California dating back to the 1970s, when lawmakers introduced “no excuse” voting by mail when it became apparent that people were making up excuses about being unable to go to the polls, simply because they didn’t want to deal with the hassle of voting on Election Day.
“It’s really hard to track down whether or not someone is actually making a legitimate excuse for requesting a mail ballot,” Suttmann-Lea said. “There was just this huge enforcement problem that states were facing.”
Throughout the 1980s, Republicans leveraged those voting reforms to quietly influence elections, Suttmann-Lea said. Take, for example, the 1982 gubernatorial race in California, where the Republican candidate won by a razor-thin margin, only after all mail-in ballots were counted.
And while party Republican operatives have used mail-in ballots to muster votes for years, Suttmann-Lea says the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be offering a messaging advantage to Democrats in 2020.
“When it comes to we’re in the middle of a pandemic, we want you to be safe while you vote,” Suttmann-Lea said. “Acknowledging the science and the risks associated with the coronavirus. So I think that not only is it a mobilization strategy for them, but it’s also a messaging strategy.”
After the election, researchers will turn their attention to whether those requests actually made a difference.
“The folks who do vote early by mail, they were probably already going to be more likely to vote in the first place,” Suttmann-Lea said.
“These are votes that you may have gotten on Election Day.”
This story was updated on Oct. 26 at 10:06 p.m. to reflect new numbers released by the secretary of the state’s office.