Older adults historically turn out to the polls at high rates. That appears to be the case again this year both locally and nationally, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
People 65 and older accounted for 30% of Erie County’s 167,938 early voters, according to data from the Erie County Board of Elections. They were the second largest age group to vote early. The largest was the 50-to-64-year-olds, who made up 33% of the county’s early voters.
So all together, nearly two-thirds of Erie County early voters were 50 and older.
One of those voters, 73-year-old Jim Andruschat, waited an hour in line Friday afternoon at the Amherst Senior Center to cast his early ballot.
“I didn't want to wait until the last minute,” he said. “If it got too crowded, I could lose my vote, so I wanted to make sure I was going to vote.”
Asked whether voting was more important to him now as a senior citizen, Andruschat, a business owner who lives in Getzville, said “definitely.”
“When I was younger, [I was] carefree, didn't care about anything, just like the young people now,” he said. “It looks a lot different when you get older.”
Erie County’s older adult early voting numbers are consistent with the national numbers. About 60% of all votes cast before Election Day, both via early voting and mail-in voting, have been by people 50 and older, according to Democratic data firm TargetSmart.
In total, TargetSmart reports that more than 87 million Americans, including 28 million people 65 and older, cast ballots before Election Day.
So although young people are voting at potentially historic rates this year, older voters are still very much leading the way.
“They have the time and they also have more time to spend paying attention,” said Dr. Harvey Palmer, who is chair of the University at Buffalo’s Political Science Department and studies elections and voting behavior. “Most of us are busy with our lives. So unless we're interested in politics, we don't collect a lot of information and may not be that informed about the election.”
Of course, older voters have faced one big hurdle going to the polls this year: the novel coronavirus, which is far more deadly for those over 60.
The National Council on Aging his year urged older Americans to vote by mail or vote early, since it’s typically less crowded than voting on Election Day.
Palmer said it appears older voters have done just that, and by doing so, will maintain their high turnout rates of past elections.
“I think that you'll still have high turnout among older voters, despite the fact that they face higher risks,” he said.
The pandemic will also impact who older adults vote for.
President Donald Trump relied heavily on older voters in 2016, but national polls have shown former vice president Joe Biden carving into that base, and the pandemic is likely a big reason why.
A recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute showed only 35% of people 65 and older approve Trump’s handling of the pandemic.
“I think older voters care a lot more about COVID, and I think Trump's recent behavior with COVID, and sort of acting like it's not that big of a deal and that people's health concerns about it are overblown, I don't think is playing well with older voters,” Palmer said. “And I think that's sort of being reflected in the polls right now.”
Trump’s handling of the pandemic influenced Andruschat’s vote. After not voting at all in 2016, he said he cast a ballot for Biden on Friday.
“Trump ran on that he's not a politician, he's a businessman. Well, I think he failed,” he said. “Maybe he's a good businessman. I don't know if he is or not, but he doesn't know how to lead a country.”
Palmer said older voters are a crucial part of American democracy: They greatly increase the turnout, and therefore make elections more legitimate.
“Often we think of other voters as being behind the times,” he said. “I think in terms of what we want in a working democracy — voters turning out and being engaged — I think it's great that so many older voters are like that, that fit that ideal.”