Increase in Early Voting

One of the dramatic changes in this year’s election is the significant increase in the number of voters who cast their ballots before Nov. 4. About a third of voters (34%) say they cast their ballots before Election Day, up from only 20% in 2004 and 2006. Almost one-in-five (19%) say they voted early in person and 14% say they voted early by mail.

Early voters and Election Day voters were nearly identical in their preferences: 53% of early voters and 50% of those who voted on Election Day cast their ballots for Obama. Similarly, 43% of early voters supported McCain, compared with 45% of Election Day voters.

Women were more likely than men to vote early, particularly by mail. Women made up 60% of early voters overall, and 66% of those voting by mail. Early voters also were older than those who voted on Election Day. A quarter of early voters were 65 or older compared with 18% of all voters. Nearly a third (32%) of voters who mailed their ballots
were 65 or older. There were no significant differences in when people cast their ballot by education or income.

Early voting was more prevalent in the South and West than in the East, where the largest states have more restrictive policies regarding early and absentee voting. Just 3% of all early voters were in the East, though that region made up 21% of the nation’s voters. Early voting by mail, which is universal in Oregon and very common in Washington and Colorado, was widely reported by Western voters: 59% of those who reported voting early by mail live in the West. By contrast, early voters in the South, where many states provided early voting sites, were more likely to vote in person: 62% of early voters who cast their ballots in person live in the South.

Of voters who cast ballots in person, 36% say they had to wait in line. Most of these voters waited less than an hour, but 10% say they waited for an hour or more. Although 41% of in-person early voters say they voted early to avoid long lines or crowds at the polls, these voters were more likely than Election Day voters to say they waited in line at the polls. Nearly half of in-person early voters say they had to wait in line (48%), compared with 33% of Election Day voters. On average, in-person early voters waited 21 minutes to vote, compared with an average of 15 minutes for those who voted on Election Day.

Voting Early More Convenient for Many

Nearly half of those who voted early (48%) say they did so because they thought the process would be more accessible or convenient than voting on Election Day; 31% said they wanted to avoid lines or crowds at the polling place, 11% said they voted early for convenience, and 5% said they thought it would be easier to vote. Early voters who cast their ballots in person were much more likely to say they voted early to avoid waiting in line than those who voted by mail (41% vs. 16%).

Nearly a third (32%) say they voted early because they would have been unable to vote or would have had difficulty getting to their polling place on Nov. 4. More than one-in-ten (11%) say they could not vote on Election Day because they were out of town, while 9% cite work as a reason they voted early. More people who voted by mail say their health was a reason for voting early than those who voted early in person (8% vs. 2%).

Small shares of voters say they voted early because they had already made up their mind (5%), they wanted to get it done (5%) or they always vote early (4%). Of those who voted by mail, 13% say they voted early because it was the only option in their state or county.

Confidence in Voting

Among voters nationwide, 73% are very confident that their vote this year was accurately counted. This is an increase of five points from 68% in the 2004 post-election survey, when Kerry voters, in particular, expressed skepticism about whether their votes were accurately counted. Just 54% of Kerry supporters felt their vote had been accurately counted, compared with 83% of Bush’s supporters. Today, there is no such gap. About the same number of Obama and McCain voters (73% and 74%, respectively) say they are very confident their vote was registered correctly.

The differing reactions of voters who backed the winning and losing candidates are greater when it comes to the accuracy of the voting process in general. This year, just 43% of voters say they are very confident that votes around the country were accurately counted, down slightly from 48% after the 2004 election. Among Obama voters, 56% are very confident in the accuracy of the vote count this year, compared with about half-as-many McCain voters (29%).

The gap in confidence was even greater – in the other direction – four years ago. In November 2004, just 18% of Kerry’s supporters said they were very confident that votes around the country had been accurately counted (30% said they were not too or not at all confident in the vote count.) At the same time, fully 72% of Bush’s supporters were very confident in the accuracy of the 2004 election count nationwide.

Role of Churches Slips

Compared with 2004, far fewer voters who attend religious services say that information on political parties or candidates was made available to them at their place of worship this year. Among all voters who attend religious services at least once or twice a month, 15% say they received such information at their house of worship. That is significantly below the 27% who said they obtained this type of information in 2004, but is comparable to the number that said they did in 2000 (14%).

Across most religious groups, fewer people report having heard about candidates and political parties at their churches this cycle. Most noticeably, fewer than half as many white evangelicals say they were exposed to this kind of political outreach compared with four years ago (16% vs. 33%). Catholics, too, were much less likely to receive this kind of information (14% vs. 31% in 2004). Compared with other religious groups, black Protestants were most likely to hear about candidates and parties during this election year (29%).

The 2008 election cycle also saw a drop in the number of people who say that information on state or local ballot initiatives or constitutional amendments was made available at their places of worship. In 2004, nearly one-in-five (19%) voters who attend religious services received this kind of information, compared with 13% in this year’s campaign. Here again, declines occurred across most religious groups.

Few voters say that their clergy or other religious groups explicitly encouraged them to vote in a particular manner. Just 8% of those who attend services say they received this kind of encouragement in 2008. That is similar to the 11% who said they were urged to vote in a particular way by clergy or religious groups in 2004.

Catholics continue to stand out as the group most likely to say they were urged by clergy or other religious groups at their church to vote in a particular way. Among white Catholics, fully 18% say they were urged to vote in a certain way at church, more than double the number for any other religious group. By contrast, on the other questions of religiously-based political mobilization (receiving information on candidates, parties, and ballot initiatives), Catholics tend to closely resemble the public as a whole.

Campaigns Turning More to Email

While McCain backers were more likely than Obama backers to have been contacted by telephone over the course of this year’s campaign, Obama supporters were more likely to have received emails and to have been contacted in person. When it comes to telephone outreach, Pew’s election weekend survey found that McCain supporters received more automated “robo-calls” than Obama supporters, but there was no difference in the percentage of supporters of each candidate who received live calls from a campaign. And, reflecting the enthusiasm among Democrats, Obama voters were far more likely than McCain voters to have volunteered time or donated money to help their candidate.

Email has been a growing part of campaign communications strategy – nearly a quarter of voters (24%) say they received email from a campaign or other group urging them to vote in a particular way, up from 14% in the November 2004 post-election survey. And email outreach is not limited to the youngest voters; roughly a quarter of voters age 30-49 (27%) as well as those age 50-64 (28%) report having received campaign emails this year. The rate is lower only among voters age 65 and older.

There continues to be a socioeconomic skew to campaign email contacts, with wealthier and higher educated voters substantially more likely to get these emails. And as was the case in 2004, Democrats are more likely to have received campaign-related emails than Republicans. This year, 27% of Obama supporters say they got email from a campaign or group urging them to vote in a particular way, compared with 21% of McCain voters. The gap was almost identical in 2004, with 18% of Kerry voters and 11% of Bush voters receiving emails.

Top Issues in the Election

Pew surveys throughout 2008 found that the economy was seen by voters as the most important issue facing the country, a judgment echoed by voters in the national exit poll. Asked to choose from a list of five issues on the exit poll, 63% picked the economy as the top problem. Similarly, 58% of voters in the Pew post-election survey chose the economy when they were read the same list and asked to pick the most important issue affecting their vote. The other items on the list were chosen by about the same percentages as in the exit poll – the war in Iraq (10%), health care and terrorism (8% each), and energy policy (6%).

Yet when a separate sample of respondents in the poll was asked the same question in an open-ended format, the results were quite different. The economy remained the top choice, but received only a 35% plurality. No other issue was mentioned by more than 9% of voters, but some different issues matched or topped items on the close-ended list: 7% mentioned moral values, abortion, or gay marriage; and 7% mentioned taxes, socialism, or distribution of income. Energy policy, which had been a subject of intense focus earlier in the campaign, was mentioned by fewer than one-half of one percent of voters.

Although the economy was the number one issue for both Obama voters (68%) and McCain voters (46%) in the fixed issue list, it was the choice of far fewer McCain voters in the open-ended format. Just 18% volunteered the economy or a related topic, compared to 50% of Obama voters. In the open-ended format, more McCain voters mentioned taxes or the redistribution of income (8%) than the war in Iraq (3%) or health care (2%).