Iowa early vote numbers down compared to same point in 2012 and 2014

Although Iowans won’t be able to cast ballots in person or by mail until next Thursday, September 29, candidates and volunteers have been collecting absentee ballot request forms for weeks as they knock on doors.

Today the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office provided this year’s first statewide early voting numbers. Absentee ballot requests are down considerably compared to mid-September 2012 and 2014.

That the Republican Party of Iowa has not yet mailed its first big piece of early vote literature can’t fully explain the trend. At this point in the last two election cycles, absentee ballot requests from Iowa Democrats alone far exceeded current numbers.

Poll after poll after poll has shown a tight presidential race in Iowa, with a relatively low number of undecided voters. Conditions are ripe for a “turnout” election, not a “persuasion” election. In other words, winning the state will depend more on identifying supporters and getting them to cast ballots than on convincing undecided voters.

Early voting indisputably helped President Barack Obama defeat Mitt Romney in Iowa by 822,544 votes (51.99 percent) to 730,617 (46.18 percent). Of the 1,589,899 Iowans who cast ballots in the 2012 general election, 688,005 (a little more than 43 percent) cast ballots early: 405,913 voted for Obama and 268,558 for Romney. Among election-day voters, 462,059 voted for Romney and 416,631 for Obama.

As in 2012 and 2014, Bleeding Heartland will post absentee ballot totals as they become available every weekday. I received the first set of numbers today. According to Kevin Hall, communications director for the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office, no large counties are missing from the data. Only a few small counties might not be included. CORRECTION: The document Hall sent me was different from the numbers posted later. I have corrected the table below.

Absentee ballots requested by Iowa voters as of September 20, 2016
Congressional district Democrats Republicans no-party voters other total
IA-01 14,765 3,672 6,147 64 24,648
IA-02 11,787 3,514 4,386 51 19,738
IA-03 12,024 4,089 3,510 43 19,666
IA-04 4,867 3,997 2,137 20 11,021
statewide 43,443 15,272 16,180 178 75,073

John Deeth, who works in the Johnson County Auditor’s Office, commented earlier this month,

The traditional early indicator, absentee requests, is way way down from 2012, a fact confirmed from other counties. The Democratic field operation, which is what drives those numbers here, began much later than usual. Some of that may have been the longer than necessary conclusion to the nomination season, but it now feels like a strategic decision at the Brooklyn level to do things later. So the jury is still out on where turnout will land and how many people will skip out.

“Way way down” indeed. Here are the numbers from my four-year-old post showing absentee ballots requested by Iowa voters as of September 17, 2012.

Congressional district Democrats Republicans no-party voters total
IA-01 28,294 3,238 9,627 41,159
IA-02 26,159 3,725 7,712 37,596
IA-03 23,729 3,965 6,386 34,080
IA-04 14,668 2,707 4,366 21,741
statewide 92,850 13,635 28,091 134,576

Granted, today’s numbers reflect ballot requests received by county auditors as of September 12, a week ago last Monday. But even if canvassers all over the state had outstanding results this past weekend, they could not have collected nearly enough absentee ballot forms to reach the totals recorded at this point in 2012. CORRECTED: Numbers are through September 20.

More surprising: at this point two years ago, many more Iowans had requested absentee ballots. Turnout for Iowa midterm elections is usually about a third lower than for presidential elections. Yet in September 2014, the Secretary of State’s Office noted surging demand for absentee ballots, “much higher this year for all party affiliations than at a similar point in 2010.”

Here’s my table showing absentee ballots requested by Iowa voters as of September 21, 2014. At that time, official data did not lump Libertarian and Green voters together as “others.”

Congressional district Democrats Republicans no-party voters Libertarian Iowa Green total
IA-01 15,455 7,556 6,717 23 26 29,777
IA-02 18,469 7,630 7,629 25 30 33,783
IA-03 14,618 7,901 4,872 25 19 27,435
IA-04 9,327 8,012 3,825 12 7 21,183
statewide 57,869 31,099 23,043 85 82 112,178

If I recall correctly, Governor Terry Branstad’s campaign had already sent out its first early vote mail piece by this point in the last election cycle. But leaving all Republicans and no-party voters aside, the Democratic ballot request numbers alone eclipse the statewide figures released today.

In a couple of weeks we’ll have a better sense of whether this year’s early GOTV simply got a late start, or whether fewer Iowans are inclined to vote before election day (or at all).

P.S.- Thousands of Iowans will cast early ballots in person rather than through the mail. Once county auditors’ offices open for in-person early voting on September 29, voters who choose that option will be recorded in the Secretary of State’s data as having requested and returned an absentee ballot on the same day.

UPDATE: The Secretary of State’s office also posted absentee ballot request numbers for each Iowa Senate and Iowa House district today.

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