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Analysis: Jury partially out on what early California voting data means 

In political analysis, it’s essential to know the difference between tea leaves and dependable empirical data. Unfortunately, this is no simple binary choice as most data falls on a range somewhere in between and has to be weighed accordingly and inexactly.

Still, all data is worth studying at least once, which brings us to PDI’s early mail-in ballot tracker. This is a free online collation of early California vote data released by county election offices and broken down with some demographic information, such as party affiliation, age and racial category. With the addition of statewide mail-in voting during the 2020 general election, all California voters have now had the chance to vote by mail in three different elections, including this year’s primary and general elections.

However, the early-vote data comes with many qualifiers. The first and most obvious caveat is the data does not provide any early election results. It’s just raw data on how many voters have returned an envelop with their unopened vote inside. Second, not all counties release their data on returned ballots as thoroughly or promptly as other counties. Thus making any strong predictions is highly risky. Look no further than all those media predictions in June that used early-vote primary data to predict a record-low primary turnout that never happened. In fact, the exact opposite occurred: more California primary votes were counted in June than in any U.S. primary... ever. (Oops.)

Early Republican Vote

Still, the current early-voter data – current as of this weekend – shows some interesting things. First, the old belief that more Democrats vote by mail than Republicans appears to no longer apply, at least in California. To this point this election, California Republicans have been slightly more likely to return their mail-in ballots than California Democrats. This might surprise given how hard Donald Trump and other Republicans worked in 2020 to tell their voters to not trust the mail-in option and only vote on election day.

The difference between registered Democrats and Republican, though, isn’t great. Overall, counties have reported 19% of the nearly 22 million voters mailed a ballot having returned their vote by mail. That is 4.1 million. Of this, 20% of all registered Democrats have returned their ballots already, and 22% of GOP voters. Also just 14% of Independent/Other voters have returned ballots, but this lagging figure is not surprising since one expects the largest group of undecided voters to be in this category.

Again, these are highly fluid numbers. It’s risky to say the 22% GOP to 20% Democrat early vote means Republicans are more motivated to vote in California this cycle. With the election on Tuesday, these numbers certainly don’t include millions of voters who have already mailed in or dropped off their ballots but have yet to be processed for inclusion in these numbers. It is also possible some big areas of Democratic or Republican vote are processing and reporting their early votes at a slower rate than other areas.

Nice random variations

Second, one nice consistency that has been detected is a nice variation between voting districts. Thus no obvious skewing can be detected at the moment. In counties with multiple House districts, one doesn’t see a pattern of voters in one party always returning more early votes than in other House races. Instead, there is almost a random variation.

For example in the next Congress, Sacramento County will be represented by three Congressional districts: the CA-3, CA-6 and CA-7. Early vote returns from registered Democrats is two percentage points higher than Republicans in the CA-3, two points lower in the CA-7, and the same in the CA-6. Similarly, San Diego County is sliced among five House districts, and the two with the highest percentage of returned ballots so far (28%) are Democratic incumbents Mike Levin’s CA-49 and Scott Peter’s CA-50. But whereas the CA-49 has seen 3 points more of Democrats return ballots than Republicans (32% to 29%) and the exact opposite numbers exist in the CA-50.

Such seemingly random variations within the same county and no strange data spikes makes one more confident that no major party-wide dynamics are distorting the early data. This feeling would be the opposite if nearly every House district saw a 8-point early return advantage by one party or the other.

Competitive races

The PDI data can be drilled down to review by individual state Assembly, state Senate and U.S. districts, but a lot of this data doesn’t matter too much because there are few competitive races out there this cycle. But where voter turnout will mean a lot are in the competitive races that feature run-off candidates from different parties. Here the data becomes ever more tantalizing but also very inconclusive.

Take the CA-27 House race that pits GOP incumbent Rep. Mike Garcia for a third general election against Democrat Christy Smith. Garcia beat Smith in the 2020 general by just 333 votes, and in redistricting, he lost highly Republican Simi Valley. So is it meaningful at all that the PDI early vote tracker shows a return of ballot rate (14%) lower than statewide average (19%), and Democrats and Republicans have returned an equal 16% of ballots mailed out so far? And does a low return percent mean slow processing by county election officials? Or does it mean a lot of voters are implausibly undecided despite this being the third time these two candidates have gone head-to-hear? All hard to say.

And despite the Democrats having a 13-percentage point registration advantage in the redesigned CA-27 over Republican, this race is expected to come down to those 29% of voters in the district not registered with either major party. And about these voters the PDI data can tell us nothing.

Likewise, consider the CA-3 open seat race between moderate Democrat Dr. Kermit Jones and GOP State Assemblyman Kevin Kiley. Early ballot returns have been very high at 27% overall. Like in the CA-27, 29% of CA-3 voters are unaffiliated with neither major party. But in this district, Democrats have so far consistently returned their mail-in ballots at a higher rate than Republicans, now besting them by 4 percentage points.

Does this mean anything? Well, at least on paper it suggests the Democrat Dr. Jones may have erased the built-in Republican registration advantage of 4.7 points. But will this hold for the remaining mail-in vote and day-of vote at the polls? The Jones camp also hopes to get some anti-Trump votes from Republicans who dislike that Kiley pursued and received former President Trump’s endorsement. But how many such votes might Jones get, and will these be more than any registered Democratic votes he loses for whatever reason? And the biggest unknown: how will all those unaffiliated voters vote break?

Record midterm turnout?

A few parting stats. In California, the 2018 general election set a record for a midterm with 12,712,542 Californians voting. That was 65.5% of all registered voters casting a vote. In the 2020 general election – a presidential year – more than 17 million Californians voted (or 80.7% of registered voters), and slightly more than two-thirds of these (68%) did so by returning a mail-in ballot.

So will the 2022 midterms surpass the 2018 midterms in terms of total votes cast in California? Turnout for 2022 midterms won’t match the 2020 presidential election, but which party will see a bigger drop-off? At this point, all of this is impossible to guess at. On the one hand, the introduction of mail-in voting has made it easier for Californians of all stripes to vote than in 2018, but 2018 was also the so-called Blue Wave election that drove a lot of California Democrats to the polls with Trump in the White House. And is there a secret Red Wave in hiding waiting to vote en masse, in person, on election day?

So stay tuned for the only poll that matters: those final general election vote counts. No reading of tea leaves will be involved there.

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