With two weeks until the election, more than twice as many Nevada voters have returned ballots by mail than in the entire 2016 election.
Nearly 176,000 voters have returned ballots mailed to them in early October, election officials reported Monday. In 2016, less than 79,000 voters cast ballots absentee or in all-mail precincts.
The unprecedented shift toward voting by mail comes two months after state lawmakers passed Assembly Bill 4, which requires election officials to automatically send all active voters mail-in ballots to ensure people afraid of venturing to precincts amid the pandemic could access the vote.
In prior elections, Nevada voters have shown a strong preference for early voting at in-person precincts in the two weeks leading up to Election Day. In 2016, 62% of Nevada voters cast ballots early. During the first two days of early voting that year, about 92,000 voters cast ballots.
Early voting began throughout Nevada on Saturday and, during the first two days, more than 68,000 voters cast ballots in-person. Vote centers will remain open for early voting until Oct. 30.
Based on ballots already returned, the share of voters who cast ballots early, by mail and on Election Day is likely to be different than prior elections, Washoe County Registrar of Voters Deanna Spikula said.
"Usually early voting is the most popular way of voting," she said. "Now that early voting has begun, it's going to be interesting to see which one wins out this time."
Under Nevada law, election officials cannot begin counting ballots until Election Day, but the Secretary of State reports turnout figures by party affiliation. About 108,000 Democrats, 64,000 Republicans and 49,000 voters not registered with the two major parties had voted as of Monday afternoon, before Clark County, home to Las Vegas, updated its Sunday count.
In 2016, when President Donald Trump lost Nevada by less than 2.5 percentage points, about 7 percentage points more Democrats voted early than Republicans. On Election Day, Republicans narrowed the gap; voters registered as Democrats outpaced voters registered as Republicans by less than one percentage point.
In rural counties where Republicans have historically dominated, Democrats have returned more ballots than Republicans. In Lyon County, Republicans outpaced Democrats by more than 7,100 votes, or 30 percentage points, in 2016. As of Monday afternoon, buoyed by an advantage among mail voters, Democrats led Republicans by 58 votes.
Lyon County Republican Party Chairman Scott Keller said the breakdown wasn't a surprise and corresponded with prior races. Republicans, he said, prefer voting in-person on Election Day because they see it as a tradition and are confident their vote will be counted.
"We don't trust that system," he said of voting by-mail. "We think if you're gonna go vote, you should just go out and vote."
Sam Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.