Today marks 99 days until Election Day. But Americans will start voting much sooner than that. In 2016, 16 states had more than half of their votes cast early, by mail or via absentee voting. With the coronavirus pandemic unlikely to be resolved by autumn, it is likely that more Americans than ever will partake of absentee and early voting options.
Many campaigns hand-wave away summer difficulties by insisting their candidate is a “great closer.” With each passing cycle, that matters less and less, as more and more votes get cast before November. We no longer have Election Day in this country, we have Election Month, and whether campaigns and candidates like it, they need to adapt accordingly.
Ballots will start getting cast for the 2020 elections on September 18 in a few states. As of this writing, Minnesota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Virginia begin in-person absentee voting 46 days before Election Day; Michigan, New Jersey, and Wyoming begin voting 45 days. Illinois starts voting 40 days before; Maine, Montana, and Nebraska vote 30 days early; California and Iowa vote 29 days before; Indiana and New Mexico vote 28 days earlier, and Arizona votes 27 days earlier. Only a handful of states do not allow early or absentee voting without a specific excuse, and the pandemic is increasing pressure to allow voters to cast ballots by mail.
Almost every presidential election cycle features at least one late-breaking story that is characterized as an “October Surprise.” Last cycle, FBI director James Comey sent a letter to Congress announcing the reopening of the email probe on October 28, 2016, 11 days before the election, and then announced that the investigation was again complete on November 6, two days before the election. But with more and more Americans casting ballots well before the first Tuesday in November, those October surprises have fewer and fewer remaining voters to influence after they break. A candidate who is in trouble in the month of October faces a shrinking window of opportunity to turn things around.