Although the presidential primary elections in each state have a set date, many voters choose to cast their ballots in the days and weeks leading up to election day.
According to the Maryland State Board of Elections, for the 2016 primary election, 259,051 eligible voters participated in early voting, 60,518 voted by absentee ballot and 1,061,733 voters showed up to polling centers on the day of the primary. More than 34% of eligible voters in Maryland participated in the primary election, which was higher than the national total of 28.5%, according to the Pew Research Center.
Absentee ballots, early voting and mail-in only elections have been expanded with the intention of increasing voter turnout and making voting more accessible. In a highly contested and fast-moving race such as the Democratic presidential primary, there are sometimes unintended consequences.
The consequences were clearly illustrated this month. In the three days leading up to Super Tuesday — when 14 states held their primary elections — three candidates who were considered “front runners” announced that they were suspending their campaigns: Tom Steyer, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar.
While supporters of these candidates who were headed to the polls on Super Tuesday had time to pick another candidate, those who participated in early voting or filled out absentee ballots in those states may have been out of luck.
In most states, once an early vote or absentee ballot has been cast, it cannot be taken back or changed. There are a few exceptions to this rule.
In Minnesota, voters can request to cancel their absentee ballot up until a week before the day of the election, according to the Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State’s website. Then, voters can choose what method they want to use to recast their vote. Since Steyer, Buttigieg and Klobuchar dropped out just days before Minnesota’s primary on Super Tuesday, this rule did not help those voters.
Voters in Michigan, which holds its primary on March 10, will be able to “spoil” their ballot if they voted in advance. The Michigan Bureau of Elections Election Officials’ Manual states that voters have until 2 p.m. the Saturday before the election to request a new ballot through the mail and until 4 p.m. the Monday before the election to request a new ballot in person. If the ballot was not received by the clerk, the voter can vote in person on election day by filling out a form or returning their unsubmitted ballot.
So what happens to the votes that are cast for candidates who have suspended their campaign?
Votes for former candidates are treated like they are still campaigning. If the person receives enough votes, they could potentially be awarded delegates to the nominating conventions. Any delegates awarded before the campaign suspension would still be counted, as well.
However, some states have provisions in place to make sure these votes can go to a candidate who is still in the running. These delegates can be “released” to vote for a candidate still vying for the nomination. The specifics vary from state to state, but typically the process begins when the candidate either withdraws or gives the state permission to release delegates.
These delegates are treated the same as superdelegates, who are key members of the Democratic Party that have an automatic seat at the nomination process. This is different than a pledged delegate, who only attends if their candidate is sending delegates from their state. Both superdelegates and “released” delegates decide which candidate to vote for. They do not need to take the primary election results of their home state into account, or support a candidate that their former candidate endorses.
Starting at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, superdelegates will not be allowed to vote on the first ballot unless it is obvious that one candidate is going to win the nomination regardless of superdelegate votes. If no candidate receives the majority and there needs to be subsequent ballots, superdelegates are then allowed to vote. Many states have adopted this rule for released delegates as well.