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How voting patterns have changed since 2020, and how early voting is going in Georgia

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

More than 12 million people have cast ballots so far in the midterm elections. That is according to the United States Election Project. We want to talk now about how people are casting ballots this year and also to dive into the specifics of early voting in a key state that we've all been watching - Georgia.

Joining me now are Miles Parks, who covers voting for NPR, and Sam Gringlas, who's a politics reporter at WABE in Atlanta. Hi, y'all.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hey there.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: Hey, Juana.

SUMMERS: Hey. All right. So let's start with the overall turnout figures so far. Miles, I want to start with you. How does 12 million compare to which we've seen in previous elections?

PARKS: Yeah. I mean, it's the most by far that we've ever seen at this point in a midterm cycle. And it really gives credence to this idea that election officials have been saying for a few cycles now that, like, Election Day is kind of over. It's really more of an election season or an election month. I talked about that recently with political scientist Michael McDonald at the University of Florida. He runs the U.S. Elections Project, which tracks these turnout numbers. And what he said is that there's a number of factors driving this early vote increase.

MICHAEL MCDONALD: In some places, we're seeing simply more early voters because there wasn't really an opportunity to vote early in many places back in 2018. So that's one part of it. The other part is that, well, it's the proverbial you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make them drink. People want to vote as well.

PARKS: In other words, there's more access to voting right now, and there's a lot of voter enthusiasm.

SUMMERS: Sam, I want to turn to you next. You are in Georgia. How is early voting going there so far?

GRINGLAS: Well, we are a week and a half in, and more than a million people have already cast their ballots in Georgia. And that is blowing past previous records for midterm early turnout that were set back in 2018. This is Georgia's secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, celebrating those million votes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRAD RAFFENSPERGER: I would put our Georgia election system and our voter experience up against any other state in the union.

GRINGLAS: Now, analysts are trying to kind of read the tea leaves from these numbers, but the reality is that it's really hard to draw conclusions right now. One point six million new voters have registered in Georgia since 2018 - plus the pandemic. And also, new election laws have changed how and when people are voting.

SUMMERS: OK. And, Sam, you're teeing up there a point I wanted to get to next. Miles, you have been looking at the overall trends in voting methods across the country. What can you tell us?

PARKS: Right. So most states expanded voting access in response to the pandemic in 2020. But that really just took a trend towards early voting that was already happening in the U.S. and supercharged it. In 2000, for instance, close to 90% of voters voted in-person on Election Day. Just 20 years later, only about 30% of American voters voted in-person on Election Day.

I talked about this shift with Charles Stewart, who's an election expert at MIT, and he said there's been a lot of noise over the last few years. There's been voting law changes all across the country, misinformation about voting by mail. But the overall trend towards early voting hasn't been dampened.

CHARLES STEWART: I think that the immovable force in elections over the last 20 years hasn't changed, and that is voters really demanding more convenience.

PARKS: You know, there's been so much attention, and rightfully so, on all of these laws that have been passed over the last couple of years that restrict voting access in some states. But it is important not to lose the forest for the trees here. There is just so much more access nationally to early voting than there was even just four years ago.

SUMMERS: And, Miles, you mentioned misinformation about vote by mail. And this was a key point for former President Donald Trump in 2020. And it led to Republicans really abandoning that method of voting in the last election this year. Are we still seeing that trend play out?

PARKS: Yes. It's clear that Democrats feel a lot more comfortable voting by mail still than Republicans do. In Pennsylvania, for instance, which does offer vote by mail but does not offer in-person early voting, registered Democrats have an early vote lead there of about 500,000 to 132,000. But like Sam said, it's really hard to read too much into those numbers because Republicans say they're going to vote in-person on Election Day. A recent NBC News poll, for instance, found that 60% of Republicans nationally said that's how they plan to vote, compared to 36% of Democrats who plan to vote in-person on Election Day.

SUMMERS: And, Sam, Georgia was one of those states that passed a new voting law. How has it changed voting so far in this general election?

GRINGLAS: Well, the law did expand early voting in some places, but it also tightened the timeline for casting an absentee ballot and cured ballot drop boxes, especially here in metro Atlanta. The law's GOP supporters, they argue that high turnout disproves any claims that voting is harder now under the new law. But Democrats like Stacey Abrams, who's running against Republican Governor Brian Kemp, say voters are simply finding ways to overcome obstacles.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STACEY ABRAMS: The vernacular way of putting it is more people in the water does not mean there are fewer sharks.

GRINGLAS: And, you know, elections in Georgia have been decided by really slim margins lately. So a few voters here and there who don't make it to the ballot box, it can matter.

SUMMERS: And, Sam, I know you have been talking to a lot of voters who are out there voting early. What are they telling you?

GRINGLAS: Well, today I stopped by my polling place at a neighborhood library in Atlanta. And I met Bobby Wagner (ph), who voted absentee during the pandemic using a drop box but now is voting early in person.

BOBBY WAGNER: Once things got a little bit better, the early voting was good. We used to always vote on the day, but - more crowded then. But early vote is very crowded this time.

GRINGLAS: I also talked to two friends, Joann Hawkins (ph) and Pamela Kit (ph). Hawkins had these three peach-shaped I voted stickers on her blouse.

JOANN HAWKINS: I need people to see I vote. And it's important to me.

PAMELA KIT: I mean, more excited about this moment. I mean, it takes me back to Obama. I'm happy to see a lot of people who may have not voted in the past are voting this term. So we're ready (laughter).

GRINGLAS: Some voters have told me they do feel a little nervous but not really because of the voting, but about whether their candidates can pull off wins this year.

SUMMERS: Miles Parks and Sam Gringlas, thank you both.

PARKS: Thanks for having us.

GRINGLAS: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: October 26, 2022 at 11:00 PM CDT
While Pennsylvania does not offer precinct-based in-person early voting, it does offer in-person mail voting.
Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.
Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.
Alejandra Marquez Janse
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.