We are in the midst of a massive transition to mail-in voting, one that was accelerated by the coronavirus. In the bellwether state of North Carolina, where Republicans will hold part of this year’s pandemic-disrupted convention, requests for absentee ballots have soared among registered Democrats from 6,868 in 2016 to 46,856 in 2020 while registered Republicans are seeing a modest jump from 6,736 in 2016 to 9,229 in 2020.
Unaffiliated voters, who don’t align with either major political party, have also requested an unprecedented number of absentee ballots, leaping from 4,546 in 2016 to 30,912 in 2020. So from roughly even starting numbers in 2016, Democratic and Unaffiliated voters’ requests are both up about 580 percent, while Republicans are up just 37 percent.
“For the state, this is really unheard of,” says Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba college in Salisbury, North Carolina. “Typically, in a presidential year, 5 percent of the vote total is mail-in, and usually Republicans tend to dominate, and it turns into votes. It’s very much a Republican advantage while early voting is slightly more Democratic.”
While Democrats have ramped up voter registration, this grassroots surge appears to have been spurred by the virus and widespread discontent over President Trump’s failure to curb its spread rather than party efforts.
With Trump regularly maligning mail-in voting, the state GOP has tried to insulate local elected officials from his ire. A recent mailing to registered Republicans features Trump tweeting, “Absentee Ballots are fine because you have to go through a precise process to get your voting privilege,” while blocking out the second half of the tweet where he says, “Not so with Mail-ins. Rigged Election!!! 20% fraudulent ballots?”
North Carolina allows any voter to request a mail-in absentee ballot, with the state Board of Election noting that “No special circumstance or reason is needed” for doing so. In the last two presidential elections, 2012 and 2016, over half of mail-in ballots were from registered Republicans, says Bitzer, who founded the Old North State Politics blog, which is tracking the number of absentee ballot requests. He told the Daily Beast, “The surge of unaffiliated voters is something very new, but just because they’re unaffiliated doesn’t mean they’re not partisan. They just don’t like the (party) label, which is true of younger voters.”
North Carolina sends out mail-in ballots on Sept. 4 to those who requested them. Early voting begins Oct. 15, three weeks before the election. “This is all kind of uncharted territory for North Carolina,” Bitzer says. “Is this voter intensity among Democrats who have their minds made up and don’t care what happens in October and November? Or is it another group of voters worried about COVID who wanted the security of public health safety?”
Also, how quickly will they return their mail-in ballot? Will they wait until the last minute, testing the capacity of local officials to deal with the deluge?
“Trump is trying to sow seeds of doubt about the election, which is a typical authoritarian tactic—everybody and everything is corrupt all the time,” says Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow in the Governance Studies program at the Brookings Institution. “But local officials are not paying attention to Trump. He’s not the only one on the ballot, and at the state and local level, they’re good at harvesting mail-in votes.”
Kamarck told The Daily Beast that the good news is that we’re in the midst of a massive transformation to mail-in voting, while “the bad news is stuff happens,” except she used a more graphic word and that’s what Trump will highlight. To combat the president’s exaggeration and misinformation, Kamarck urges a massive campaign to educate the public that a deluge of write-in votes means that the election results will not be known by Election Day night, or the morning after.
It could take a week or even a month to tally the results in a close election as it has in New York where just 648 in-person votes separate Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a 14-term Democrat, from her challenger, 36-year-old Indian-American Siraj Patel, as of Tuesday, while 65,000 mail-in ballots are still being counted. Patei challenged a rule that mail-in ballots must have been postmarked by election day. Turns out the post office doesn’t always postmark third class mail, adding to the confusion. It took weeks for a winner to be declared in other contests in the state.
“My view if a ballot shows up and it’s without a postmark, it should be counted,” says Kamarck, but rules vary from state to state, adding to the confusion. Some states count ballots received up to 5 days after election day if they’re postmarked by election day. California counts ballots received up to 10 days after election day.
The U.S. Constitution gives states the power to conduct elections, “and in a weird way you don’t want this federalized,” says Kamarck. “If we had one massive system, it would be easier for the Russians to screw it up.”
States had a dry run in the primaries, “and they know where their choke points are,” says Kamarck. In Maryland, for example, a lot of people didn’t get the ballots they requested, and they went to in-person sites, which led to long waits. The lesson for election officials, says Kamarck, is that they can’t assume a surge in mail-in ballots will mean less in-person voting.
That may be true in an upscale suburb, but not in a city like Baltimore. “If you’re poor, you move a lot. People just didn’t get their ballots. There are socio-economic aspects, and then there’s the stuff-happens aspect.”
Oregon has been voting by mail for two decades, so voters there are acclimated. But there is a dirty little secret about voting in general, and mail-in voting in particular, that will get heightened scrutiny in this year’s election. Not every vote is counted unless a race is close. Once a pattern is established, and one candidate has an insurmountable lead, the counting ends.
Trump and his allies might want to challenge every vote if his challenger doesn’t have a commanding enough margin to put any questions to rest. After evidence emerged of Russian interference in the 2016 election, 22 states began work to create a paper trail because of the fear that electronic transmission of votes could be easily hacked.
What should we expect on Nov. 3 after the polls close? If there is a political landslide, we may still have a provisional winner that evening. If not, Kamarck envisions “a great big room under heavy guard in the state capitol (in battleground states) where people are counting actual paper ballots. It’s going to take a long time, but it’s going to give you a pretty secure result. Igor and Boris will have a hard time getting in that room.”
And Donald too, though it won’t stop him from trying to create a scenario where he has weeks to talk about how the system was rigged against him and he actually won even before the people’s votes have actually been counted and no matter what that count shows.