North Carolina voters continue to request absentee-by-mail ballots this year at a record pace. Requests are now 15 times ahead of where the number was at the same time four years ago, during the last presidential election cycle. They're expected to surpass 500,000 this weekend.
"It's just grown exponentially day by day," said Catawba College Political Science Prof. Michael Bitzer, who closely tracks data from the North Carolina State Board of Elections and regularly posts findings on his Old North State Politics blog.
Bitzer said there is good reason to think the meteoric rise in the number of absentee-by-mail ballot requests this year will continue.
"If COVID increases," he said, "I could see that driving even more voters to say 'You know what, I want the assurance of having a ballot, not having to stand in line with a bunch of people.'"
Elections officials are also pouring a lot of resources into making polling sites safer for in-person voting this year. Recently enacted legislation put up state matching funds to get millions in federal assistance for county elections officials to equip poll sites and workers with sanitizer, plexiglass sneeze guards, masks, and individual styluses and pens.
But state and county elections officials are preparing for a huge wave of mailed-in ballots. To be sure, not every voter who requests an absentee-by-mail ballot ends up sending it in. Many voters who request absentee-by-mail ballots ultimately opt to go to cast ballots in person on Election Day or at one-stop early voting sites. It should also be mentioned that voters may return absentee-by-mail ballots by hand-delivering them to a one-stop early voting site or their county elections board.
But the high number of requests should give a fair indication of the amount of absentee-by-mail ballots North Carolina voters will cast this year. In 2016, according to Bitzer, of approximately 230,000 total absentee-by-mail ballots requested, a little under 200,000 were returned and accepted. Usually, he added, around 85% of absentee-by-mail ballots are returned and accepted for counting.
U.S. Postal Service representatives held an information session for county elections officials from across North Carolina this past week, according to State Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell. Bell said the meeting had been scheduled long before the recent news stories about Postmaster General — and Trump appointee — Louis DeJoy's cost-cutting measures.
DeJoy's moves, like reducing the number of high-speed sorters used by the postal service, caused a furor among Democratic and Republican lawmakers worried the cutbacks could undermine efforts to smoothly handle the higher-than-normal number of absentee ballots expected this year. And the president's constant, but baseless claims that absentee-by-mail voting was rife with voter fraud, only intensified concern that the Trump administration was intent on impeding the absentee-by-mail voting process.
Nonetheless, Bell said USPS representatives sounded confident in their ability to handle mailed-in ballots in North Carolina.
"It's still not going to reach some of the levels that they're accustomed to during holiday periods," she said.
Still, there are things voters who want to send in their absentee-by-mail ballots can — and should — do, Bell and other elections officials have repeatedly said. Voters are advised to submit their requests and completed ballots as soon as possible.
Under state law, an absentee-by-mail ballot must be postmarked by Election Day, Nov. 3, and received no later than the following Friday, Nov. 6. To meet those dates, Bell said Oct. 27 is the absolute last day a voter should return their absentee-by-mail ballot by post.