“Early voting” is this campaign cycle’s latest obsession, especially with the chattering pundits of the national media. With more than 60 million ballots already cast nationwide and growing, what impact will early voting have on the presidential race? Who does it help in the battleground states? Will it be the decisive factor?

But in California, it’s nothing new. We have a long history of voting by mail. 

There are currently 16 million permanent absentee ballot voters (PAVs) in California, people who regularly vote by mail. The number of people who vote by mail has been steadily growing since 1982, to where PAVs now represent 73 percent of the state’s voters.

As the numbers have grown, there have been changes in both who votes by mail and how the numbers have impacted election results. In the early days, Republicans dominated vote-by-mail. But it was soon discovered that the number of Republican voters wasn’t increasing. Republicans who were voting by mail were simply Republicans who used to vote at the polls. As a result, Republican candidates facing Democrats in close contests had an early advantage on election night thanks to vote by mail, only to see their leads dwindle as Democrats showed up at the polls on election day. 

In recent years, Democrats have been shifting to vote-by-mail, erasing the early partisan advantage Republican candidates had once enjoyed. 

Currently in California, 24% percent of PAVs are Republican, 47% percent are Democrat, and 29% percent are other. Not surprisingly, these PAV Democrats tend to be dependable voters who have just shifted the way they vote. Instead of going to the polls on election day, they now vote by mail. 

So now we come to this November’s pivotal presidential election, where 30 percent of California’s registered voters have already cast their ballots, mostly by mail. This translates to about six million votes cast out of the state’s 22 million registered voters, with a steady increase of three percent each day. 

Who are these six million early voters?

They are predominately older (55 percent are 55 years or older, while only 18 percent are under 35), white (67 percent) and middle- or upper-income (89 percent)—the kind of voters who typically vote by mail in California. Of those who’ve voted by mail, 86 percent are PAVs. 

The overwhelming majority of these early voters are regular voters, not low-propensity voters. Of these voters, 74 percent cast ballots in November 2016 and 2018. Just 17 percent registered to vote after November 2016.

Combined, 91 percent of the ballots returned so far are from regular voters, or from voters who were not eligible to vote in the last presidential election.  

While the number of returns has been steadily growing, history suggests that the number will jump dramatically in the last week of the election. And that means a massive surge of millions of ballots in the final week. But will it be vastly different than past elections? 

So far, early voters in California are mostly regular voters who usually vote by mail anyway. As we enter the final days, we’ll soon know if turnout remains typical, or if it suddenly includes a flood of new voters casting votes for the first time, thanks to the state’s efforts to make voting easier. Stay tuned.