"Be the first to be counted and vote early," one expert recommends

More than 69 million votes have already been cast in the 2020 presidential election, as the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and sky-high interest are driving numerous Americans toward the ballot box weeks before Election Day.

The total votes cast as of Tuesday afternoon, according to data compiled by the U.S. Elections Project, has already eclipsed the total number of early votes cast in 2016 and makes up about half the total votes cast that year.

“It is so exciting!” Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser to the elections program at the bipartisan Democracy Fund Voice foundation, told PEOPLE. “We were hit by a global pandemic and many wondered, ‘What impact will this have on turnout?’ Many lessons were learned this spring that I believe are impacting the general election.”

Early Voting
Americans voting early in South Carolina on Oct. 16, 2020
| Credit: LOGAN CYRUS/AFP via Getty

Indeed, as COVID-19 raised health concerns across the country, many election officials revised their plans, pushed for more voter options and expanded services like ballot tracking, prepaid postage, ballot drop boxes and use of sports arenas as polling locations.

Plus, according to Patrick, “voters are taking early action and are flattening the curve by voting now” rather than bunching up in large Election Day lines.

What is less clear is which candidate this enthusiasm might benefit, either President Donald Trump or Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

Numerous state and national polls have shown Biden with a durable lead. But the large wave of voters so far has raised questions about whether polling — a largely accurate but imperfect tool — has overlooked some group, particularly those who rarely or never turned voted before.

Early Voting
Voters in North Carolina on Oct. 15
| Credit: GRANT BALDWIN/AFP via Getty

The U.S. Elections Project's data shows that more than 46 million mail-in ballots have already been cast as of Tuesday — this despite Trump’s slew of false statements about voting by mail.

In some states, however, the legislatures and the courts continue to wrangle over where and when to stop accepting and counting mail ballots, with the dates varying by state.

Voting proponents say such restrictions are anti-democratic, though critics of expanded mail balloting argue it could create problems, even though experts say widespread mail fraud is not an issue.

Early voting records haven’t just been shattered via mail, either.

More than 23 million votes have also been cast in person as of Tuesday, according to the U.S. Elections Project, a bipartisan vote tracking database run by University of Florida professor Michael McDonald.

Early Voting
Early voting takes place in Los Angeles at Union Station on Saturday
| Credit: VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty

For example, Maryland began early in-person voting with a record-setting day Monday: More than 161,000 residents waited in line to cast their votes, setting the state’s single-day early voting record.

Nineteen-year-old resident Armon Wilson, told The Baltimore Sun he woke up at 4 a.m. and walked an hour in the rain to be first in line Monday morning.

“I’m here to show older people: younger people — we vote,” Wilson told the newspaper. “We’ve got to back up talk with action.”

In Washington state, many voters have shown a similar determination while voting absentee amid the pandemic.

The state holds its elections mostly by mail and reported Monday that it has more than tripled its voter turnout thus far, with more than 2.25 million votes cast compared to less than 1 million at this time in 2016.

McDonald told NPR that states like Washington, who hold their elections completely via mail, have led the way for encouraging early voter participation.

The professor told the outlet he estimates at least 150 million votes will be cast by Election Day, making for the highest turnout rate in more than a century.

"We continue to pile on votes at a record pace," McDonald told NPR. "We've already passed any raw number of early votes in any prior election in U.S. history."

Early Voting
Americans wait in line to vote early in New York City on Saturday
| Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty

How Quickly Will All of These Votes Be Counted?

Election officials warn that despite — and in some ways because of — the historic surge in early voting, many states will not be able to report results of the presidential race on Nov. 3.

It may take days, or weeks, to get clear results.

But that doesn't automatically mean anything has gone wrong (despite repeated suggestions by President Trump). The country's election history includes many examples of races that took time to settle, particularly in states like California with a tradition of slow ballot-counting.

Different states take different amounts of time to count their votes (The New York Times has a guide to the different timetables) and the final tallies are not legally certified for days or even weeks afterward. The Electoral College that technically elects the president, based on the state results, does not meet until mid December.

While some states have laws allowing election officials to begin counting votes weeks ahead of the election — Arizona, Colorado and Florida, to name a few — many states don’t allow their officials to begin opening and counting up ballots until Election Day, or later.

Early Voting
A man casts his early vote in Milwaukee on Oct. 20

In Michigan, the state's Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson warned as early as September that “election night” will look more like “Election Week,” because of its laws restricting officials to begin counting its millions of ballots until polls close on Nov. 3.

"If it takes a few extra days to ensure we have a full and accurate counting as a result of every race, that's what it's going to take," Benson previously told NBC’s Meet the Press. "We're going to be transparent throughout that whole process to make sure every citizen knows exactly where we are in the counting process and how many more ballots we have to get through."

And Michigan isn't alone. At least 22 states, and Washington, D.C., allow ballots post-marked by Nov. 3 to be counted in the days following, according to the Times.

Eight states say they'll be able to report results by noon following Election Day, the Times reports, while some states' officials — including in Alaska, Rhode Island and New York — have already said they won't release their results on election night.

The major media organizations that have historically called the winner on election night, based on a mix of partial results and data inference, are expected to take a more cautious approach this year given the change in voting patterns.

In some scenarios — say, if the key swing state Florida is decisively won by either candidate — a winner may be clear by the night of Nov. 3.

In many other plausible situations, however, it may take longer.

In order to be part of the count, either the night of Nov. 3 or in the days afterwards, election experts like Patrick advise people to vote as soon as possible.

“You should know that if you still have your vote by mail or absentee ballot, [the Postal Service] recommends mailing it back one week before it is due — so, that should be mailed back immediately,” Patrick said. “In most states the early ballots are reported when the polls close on election night, so be the first to be counted and vote early.”

Have questions about how to vote ahead of the Nov. 3 election? Use vote.org to check your state-specific information about registering to vote, voting by mail, early voting, finding your polling place and more. Early and mail voting are already underway across much of the country, while many states also allow voters to register at their polling places on the same day they cast their ballots.