Absentee ballot requests are four times higher than they were in 2016.
A jump in mail-in ballot requests, spurred by fears of contracting COVID-19 during in-person voting, has already surprised North Carolina election officials and political analysts.
“We all were expecting a run-up in mail-in ballots,” Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer told The News & Observer Monday. “I don’t think anybody would have expected that rate at this point.”
Bitzer found in a preliminary survey that absentee ballot requests are up four times what they were at this time of year in 2016, when the last presidential election was held.
As many as four out of 10 voters, or 10 times the usual amount, could end up casting mail-in, or absentee, ballots in November, state election officials told The Charlotte Observer.
In North Carolina, absentee and mail-in voting methods are “one in the same,” Bitzer stressed, despite President Donald Trump’s attacks on voting methods “which label absentee voting as safe while voting by mail as prone to fraud.”
Mail-in vote requests way up
In a new report, Bitzer analyzed over 65,000 absentee ballot requests made in more than 60 of the state’s 100 counties. He discovered a four-fold increase from the number of requests made at the same time in 2016.
Concerns about standing in crowded lines for in-person voting on Election Day could be behind the increase in absentee ballot requests, Bitzer theorized.
“If voters are concerned about the coronavirus and standing in line to vote, vote by mail may provide the opportunity to address public health concerns while still exercising the fundamental civic duty of voting,” Bitzer wrote in his report.
That civic duty has gotten easier to perform this year because state lawmakers and the State Board of Elections have been working to make casting absentee ballots simpler and more streamlined.
Last month, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper signed House Bill 1169 into law, which allows voters to request absentee ballots online. The measure also reduces the requirements to have two witnesses sign mail-in ballots. The new law reduces the number of witnesses to one, but only for the 2020 election.
Groups say voters need more leeway
The revised requirement has drawn fire from activists who say the state’s voting reforms don’t go far enough.
The national American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU’s North Carolina chapter and several individual voters sued North Carolina lawmakers and election officials Friday morning, seeking to eliminate the witness requirement and mandating pre-paid postage for mail-in ballots.
“No one should be forced to choose between their health and their vote,” the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project Director Dale Ho said in a statement. “Removing the witness requirements in the middle of a deadly pandemic just makes sense.”
The lawsuit says the requirement necessitates “face-to-face and hand-to-hand interaction between voters and others who pose a potentially fatal risk to the voter’s health.”
The ACLU’s suit joins a similar one by Democracy NC and the League of Women Voters that seeks to make mail-in voting easier. In addition, the National Redistricting Foundation and Right to Vote Foundation have also filed suit to expand access to vote-by-mail.
The League of Women Voters wanted to prevent pandemic-related voting issues that have hampered other elections from occurring in North Carolina, said Hilary Klein, a lawyer with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice who is representing the League of Women Voters.
“One of the ways [of doing that] is by making absentee voting easier,” Klein told The Observer.
Effects of Bladen County election fraud
But in North Carolina, enduring concerns over past election fraud cases may delay the adoption of the less restrictive measures.
In a high-profile case in 2018, state officials ordered a new election in the 9th Congressional District after Bladen County GOP operative McCrae Dowless was accused of perpetrating absentee ballot fraud to benefit the Republican candidate, Baptist pastor Mark Harris.
Harris withdrew from the new election ordered by the state elections board. Dowless and some of his staff were indicted on criminal charges related to ballot harvesting, a practice where they mailed in other people’s ballots and, in some cases, filled in people’s ballots for them.
Today, Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman announced Harris would not face any state criminal charges related to the case.
In its lawsuit, the ACLU said the current witness signature rules don’t prevent those situations from occurring, given the sparse oversight.
“While …election officials check for the presence of a signature and address, they do nothing to verify this information,” the lawsuit alleges. “Thus … the witness requirements pose no obstacle to deter an individual who is willing to commit perjury and cast an absentee ballot fraudulently.”
President Trump has, meanwhile, amped up his attacks on mail-in voting, which seem to be dissuading Republicans from using a method they’ve historically utilized more than Democrats in the past.
But both major political parties in North Carolina are ramping up vote-by-mail efforts for their constituencies.
“We always have a plan for absentee voting and …we’re going to have to ramp it up this cycle,” NC. Republican spokesman Tim Wigginton told The Observer.
Also speaking to The Observer, State Democratic Party spokesman Austin Cook said, “Voting by mail is safe, secure and convenient, which President Trump and Vice President Pence can personally attest to.”
Want to request an absentee ballot yourself? You can do so here.
Absentee ballots for the 2020 general election will start being mailed to voters Sept. 4. Completed ballots must be postmarked by the Nov. 3 election date.