So far 159,660 people have voted early in Minnesota. Here's what to watch.

Four weeks into early voting, the number of ballots cast in Minnesota has surpassed the early general election turnout at the same point in 2016, according to the Minnesota Secretary of State's data — an initial sign of potentially strong midterm turnout in November.

In 2016, nearly 700,000 absentee ballots were received prior to Election Day. So far this year, about 160,000 votes have already been cast, which is just ahead of 2016 at this time and significantly more than the number who voted early in the 2014 midterms, when early voting was first allowed.

The Star Tribune will be tracking the early vote here every week until Election Day, with new counts typically arriving on Thursdays. Here are some things we're watching as the vote comes in:

How does turnout compare to 2014 and 2016?

High early voting numbers could be a reflection of enthusiasm among voters of both parties. It could also suggest that Minnesotans are getting used to recent voting laws, enacted in 2013 and first available in 2014, which allow residents to vote early without an excuse about six weeks before the election.

So far this year, 159,660 Minnesotans have cast ballots — more than three times the number that had voted early at this point in 2014 and about 9,000 votes ahead of 2016's tally.

Being ahead of 2016 is especially significant because midterm turnout is usually much lower in Minnesota than during presidential years.

Minnesota often leads the nation in voter turnout, and the U.S. Elections Project shows advanced voting isn't much different. Minnesota's early vote has already reached 68 percent of the total number of absentee ballots accepted in 2014, putting its pace ahead of most other states.

Where are the early votes coming from?

Apart from being the state's major population centers, metro area counties like Hennepin and Ramsey often vote heavily Democratic in statewide elections. High turnout there could reflect Democratic enthusiasm, whereas high turnout in outstate counties could mean the same for Republicans.

So far, measuring the percentage of absentee ballots cast by Minnesota county — shaded from less to more — reveals the most early turnout in Hennepin, Ramsey and Dakota counties.

By comparison, just before Election Day in 2016, counties in northern parts of the state and the Iron Range had among the highest percentages of early voter turnout.

What's happening in the suburbs?

The Twin Cities suburbs are home to two heavily contested Congressional races, which could play a role in driving up turnout. The suburbs are also a key battleground in statewide races, so voter enthusiasm there is important to both parties.

So far, more 2018 early votes are on pace to come from Hennepin and Ramsey counties than other areas, just as in 2016.

The other five metro counties — Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Scott and Washington — alone account for about a quarter of the early vote, indicating a significant number of suburban early ballots.

About 42 percent of the early vote has come from greater Minnesota, mostly from the central and southern regions.

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