More than 4.5 million Californians have already cast ballots in the 2020 general election — and there’re still 12 days to go. 

Roughly one-fifth of the 21.5 million ballots mailed to registered voters had been processed as of Tuesday evening, blowing away previous election totals.

About three times as many California residents have participated in early voting so far this year compared to the same period in the 2016 presidential election, according to Paul Mitchell, Vice President of Political Data, Inc.

The pace of returns has been extraordinary, Mitchell said. “It’s nothing close to anything we’ve ever seen.”

While there’s no clear-cut reason for the increase, experts have their theories. Mindy Romero, director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at USC, said she sees three reasons why California’s early turnout is so high: voter enthusiasm, ballot and personal safety concerns, and a sense of relief.

“A lot of the voters, I think, are excited or nervous about the election and want to know that their vote is in,” Romero said. 

Still, the unprecedented early voting doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in turnout, Mitchell noted, though he’s optimistic that might end up being the case. 

“It doesn’t look like it’s, definitively, a surge electorate, where we have more young people, Latinos and low socioeconomic voters participating,” he said. “Just because somebody votes early doesn’t mean their vote counts for more.”

High-propensity voters—that is, voters generally expected to turn out in an election—have made up the overwhelming majority of the electorate so far. Late last week, about 99 percent of ballots returned were from those voters, who tend to skew older and whiter, according to Mitchell. 

Mitchell predicts that relatively more low-propensity voters will cast their ballots in the coming days, boosting the final tally.

Dylan Svoboda is a reporter at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

Votebeat is a national media collaboration about the administration and integrity of, and issues regarding, the unprecedented 2020 election. In California, CalMatters is hosting the collaboration with the Fresno Bee, the Long Beach Post and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact CalMatters with any commentary questions:

Dylan is a reporter at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.