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Measuring Early Voting's Impact on Local Foot Traffic

November 11, 2020
Briana Brown

The 2020 United States presidential election was historic in many respects, but perhaps most notably for its record-breaking voter turnout. While encouraging voters to participate is a priority in any election, the unique circumstances brought by a global pandemic posed new challenges. One response to this was the implementation of early voting in most U.S. states. 

Early voting proved to be wildly popular across the U.S. In fact, more Texans participated in early voting in 2020 than voted at all in 2016. To help understand these 2020 voting trends, SafeGraph has launched a brand new, free dataset of all early voting and election day polling places. Using this data, we can analyze how early voting activity varied by geography and impacted surrounding businesses.

Depending on individual state regulations, American voters could cast a ballot in-person as early as 46 days before election day, November 3rd. When combined with SafeGraph Patterns data, we can begin to understand this early voting activity. Although the early voting process varies by state, foot traffic data from polling sites reveals that there was a nationwide increase of activity at the polls beginning October 19th. From October 19th to 27th, foot traffic at polling locations steadily increased to be about 11% more than usual.

When broken down by state and taking different early voting procedures into account, it’s apparent that early voting activity differed by geography. Some states, such as California and Florida, saw steady increases in foot traffic to polling stations. Others, like Mississippi and Montana, had much more variation. 

Concentrating on Ohio, we can see that foot traffic to early voting places increased by 200% between October 1st and November 1st.  Like the U.S. in its entirety, Ohio broke a record for voter turnout, with over 5.8 million votes cast at the end of election day. More than 1.3 million of these votes are estimated to have been cast in person at an early polling site.

Early voting locations in Ohio.

Ohio voters could cast their ballots early in-person from October 6th to November 2nd, during both weekdays and weekends. Between October 1st and November 1st, foot traffic to early voting sites in Ohio increased 200%. While this increase can be seen throughout October, the most drastic increase occurred from October 16th to November 1st, with foot traffic increasing 114%. 

With unprecedented early voter turnout leading to an over 200% increase in foot traffic to areas with polling places, it’s not surprising that nearby businesses also saw an increase in foot traffic. Record-breaking long lines, in Ohio sometimes extending as far as a quarter mile, caused people to spend more time in areas not necessarily part of their daily routines. Foot traffic to places within a quarter mile radius increased 30% throughout the month of October.

Some businesses predicted and took advantage of this increase in foot traffic to their area by offering delivery deals to voters waiting in line. Special offer or not, businesses within a quarter mile radius of early voting places in Ohio did see an increase in foot traffic during October that coincides with the sharp increases at the polls seen later in the month. Restaurants in the area saw foot traffic increase by 9.6% from October 19th to November 1st, while retailers saw an increase of 16.6% over the same time period. Interestingly, retailers saw a steep rise in foot traffic on October 24th, with foot traffic increasing 3.3% over the course of that single day. 

Whether used to inform advertising or inventory planning strategies for future elections, the business insights derived from voting foot traffic data can help organizations respond to unique market circumstances. With record numbers of voters participating in the election early, and as a result reporting to new polling places, nearby businesses may have gotten free brand visibility as voters waited in long lines. If future elections continue to leverage extensive early voting, brands can benefit from analyzing geographic trends in foot traffic to develop strategies for capitalizing on increases in local activity.

For a complete list of nationwide voting sites, download SafeGraph’s free polling location dataset. Each record includes polling hours, lat/long, start and end date, address location name, full address, and a Placekey for easier data joins and analysis.

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