First votes of 2020 primary season could be cast outside of Iowa

Minnesota voters will head to the polls as early as Friday.

January 17, 2020, 7:13 AM

The traditional kick-off of election season is usually associated with the state of Iowa, when caucus-goers spend hours attempting to lobby support for their top choice candidates in hopes of helping presidential hopefuls establish an early lead in the nominating process.

But as Iowans prepare to brace frigid temperatures to cast their ballots on Feb. 3, voters in another chilly state directly to the north may be the ones to lay claim over casting the actual, in-person first votes of 2020 through early voting.

Among the first states to start in-person early voting is Minnesota, where voters will begin to head to the polls as early as Friday - weeks before the state’s March 3 primary on "Super Tuesday," when the bulk of the nation’s primary contests are held, apportioning nearly one-third of the delegates needed to secure the Democratic nomination on one night.

"The earliest people who vote are either the people in situations where they just need to vote early, like our military abroad...or it's these people who are hardcore voters," said Michael McDonald, a professor of political science at the University of Florida who specializes in elections and voter turnout. "They're very engaged, they follow the candidates, they're very confident as who they're going to vote for. And that's the theme, I think, plays out through the early voting period."

But a rush to the ballot box might not overwhelm polling places opening their doors on Friday, McDonald said.

"In a chaotic presidential nomination contest like what we have right now with multiple candidates, what you often see is that voters tend to hold on to their ballots much longer than they will when we get to the general election," he continued. "Right now, people don't know, really, who to vote for. We still have candidates dropping out."

PHOTO: Voters fill out their ballots at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Nov. 6, 2018, in Minneapolis.
Voters fill out their ballots at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Nov. 6, 2018, in Minneapolis.
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

The option to cast votes early is a departure from how Minnesotans have voted for nearly three decades under the caucus system, which required real-time and in-person attendance up until this cycle.

“When we had caucuses, we were requiring people to show up, you know, during a two and a half hour window on Tuesday night during the middle of winter to cast their votes and you know, [it] was very restrictive,” Ken Martin, chairman of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party said in an interview with ABC News.

Minnesota party officials believe the expanded flexibility will result in record turnout at the polls, meaning that a significant number of votes could be cast across the battleground state weeks before its official primary date. Democrats are pouring resources into the state early, as the party aims to safeguard its blue territory from GOP gains through organizing tactics.

The expected increase in voter turnout could also serve as an indicator for the eventual presidential matchup in the general election, and Minnesota Democrats are also bracing for a flood of political efforts from the Trump campaign.

“Trump's a little bit of a trophy collector, right? And there's no bigger trophy for a Republican running for president than winning Minnesota,” Martin said.

In 2016, President Trump lost the state by a margin of two points, and has been open about wanting to tip the scales in 2020. At a campaign rally in Minneapolis in October 2019, the president made clear that winning the state was a priority in his campaign strategy, as he took a swipe across the aisle at Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar while promising to win the second time around.

“How do you have such a person representing you in Minnesota? I am very angry at you people right now,” Trump said at the time, adding, “She is one of the big reasons that I am going to win, and the Republican Party is going to win Minnesota in 13 months.”

Trump’s focus on Minnesota hits close to home on the campaign trail for Senator Amy Klobuchar who has enjoyed a steady rise in the polls over the last few months, particularly in the early states. She has said she is confident in her ability to face off with the president.

As Klobuchar maps out her winning strategy beyond Iowa, she will be in the state Friday as voters begin to cast ballots to kick off early voting.

But the Land of 10,000 Lakes only slightly beats out Vermont, another Super Tuesday state, as the earliest state to conduct in-person early voting.

Voters in Vermont, a state home to Sen. Bernie Sanders and one that the presidential contender is likely banking on in his second pursuit for the Democratic nomination, can start heading to the polls on Jan. 18.

But the distinction of issuing the first early voting ballots of the 2020 timeline, in this case, does not include people who vote absentee by mail. Voters in both New Hampshire and North Carolina have already started requesting absentee ballots, ahead of Minnesota and Vermont.

Those absentee ballots started trickling out of New Hampshire to military and overseas voters in December, according to the secretary of state's office. On Monday, North Carolina began mailing absentee by mail ballots to voters who requested them, and any registered voter in North Carolina may vote absentee by mail. In Virginia, in-person absentee voting began on Thursday.

Minnesota and Vermont aren't the only non-early states who will start the electoral process before the nation’s first four primaries and caucuses. A slew of states are poised to begin early voting throughout the month of February, allowing voters to cast ballots early on days interspersed between the first four nominating contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

Illinois, a state holding its primary on March 17, begins early voting on Feb. 6, sandwiched in between Iowa's caucuses and New Hampshire's primary.

Between the New Hampshire primary and the Nevada caucuses, seven states will begin early voting, including the delegate-rich Texas, another Super Tuesday state.

Closing out the month of February with early voting are another five states, which are all holding primaries in March, including; Massachusetts, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan and Oklahoma.

Among the first four early states, only Nevada will be holding early voting from Feb. 15 to Feb. 18 prior to caucus day.

The benefits of early voting range from the convenience factor to producing higher turnout rates. In the 2018 midterm elections, which saw record highs for early voting, the total number of Texans who cast ballots during the early voting period surpassed the total vote (early plus Election Day) in 2014.

At this stage in the Democratic race, heightened expectations for early voting are driven by the competitiveness of the primary, according to McDonald.

"I don't expect the level of turnout on the Republican side to be the same as on the Democratic side because there's just different levels of competition there," McDonald told ABC News. "We know that competition is one of the key determinants for turnout."

But early voting could provide significant insights into voting patterns and behavior ahead of a competitive primary season and the critical 2020 general election.

"I think probably the more interesting dynamic will be on the Democratic side," McDonald said, adding, "we'll be able to look at the racial composition of the Democratic primary voters" across states that include race on the voter file, including a number of southern states like Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana.

"For like Biden to do well in South Carolina, we’ll want to see if the level of engagement among African Americans is at least the same level as it was in 2016," the last time there was a competitive Democratic primary, McDonald offered as an example.

But more broadly, early voting could potentially signal the level of engagement among America’s electorate - a key indicator that could decide the trajectory of the 2020 race.

"We might also get some clues about what's going on with overall levels of engagement, just by looking at the total number of voters who have been participating," he added.

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