Claudia Swisher loves casting her ballot in person on Election Day, but this year COVID-19 health concerns are keeping her away from the polls.
In her lifetime, the 75-year-old Norman, Oklahoma resident has voted only four times by mail. She cast three of those ballots this year. Swisher also paid $100 to become a notary public to make it easier for her neighbors to comply with the absentee ballot notarization law in the state.
“I want to take away as many barriers as possible to vote because people who want to vote should have as many options as possible,” Swisher said.
All but a handful of states now allow widespread access to mail-in — or absentee — balloting, but voters nationwide find themselves navigating a complex patchwork of regulations that vary from state to state — everything from voter ID requirements to strict ballot deadlines.
And prospective voters face conflicting messages about whether their ballots will be counted amid concerns over U.S. Postal Service delivery delays, barriers to access in poorer communities and the potential for fraud, despite no significant evidence that is, has been or will be a problem.
Still, experts say mail-in ballots will play a pivotal role in the Nov. 3 election and warn the race may not be settled until days later or longer, as record-setting numbers of people vote by mail. In Michigan, by Tuesday afternoon — 24 days before the deadline — 2.6 million voters had requested absentee ballots. That’s more than half the total number of voters who turned out in the state during the 2016 election.
The last presidential election was decided by margins of less than 2 percent in six states — Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Wisconsin. Pundits and policymakers differ on which states will swing this year, but some estimate the race could hinge on voters in eight, including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
A CNHI data analysis showed voters cast ballots by mail in record numbers in the 2020 primaries when compared to 2016. Spikes in vote-by-mail turnout ranged from 2,758 percent in Georgia to 11 percent in Florida.
Pennsylvania, which allowed anyone to vote absentee for the first time in 2020, saw a 1,616 percent increase in returned absentee ballot applications.
The increases in mail-in and absentee voting also held in places where total turnout fell.
CNHI’s data analysis collected and analyzed county-by-county election data from eight states where mail-in or absentee ballot numbers were available. The findings show:
• In six swing states (Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Pennsylvania), at least 5.2 million more voters used mail-in or absentee ballots in 2020 primary elections when compared to similar electoral milestones in 2016.
• Republicans relied more heavily on mail-in voting during 2020 primaries in two of four states where such comparisons were possible (Florida and Georgia). Prior to 2020, in Florida and Georgia’s 2016 primaries, mail-in voting was roughly equally popular with Democratic and Republican voters.
• In seven of eight states examined, median household income of a county had a positive relationship with the use of mail-in and absentee ballots. Generally, the more wealthy a county, regardless which political party claims majority support, the more voters utilized mail-in or absentee ballots in 2020.
The net effect of the exponential growth of remote voting has been a substantial expansion and diversification of the pool of people who participate in elections, said Enrijeta Shino, a University of North Florida assistant professor of political science.
Prior to 2020, Republicans tended to vote by mail at higher rates than Democrats, but that is changing, she said.
“This leads us to think how politicized this vote method has become because of (President Donald) Trump’s criticism of the method, and how Republicans are taking cues from the president and following with it,” Shino said. “This is a bit concerning because it is going to shake people’s trust in this voting method, which we know is safe. The fraud cases are so small and isolated, but that also may make voters lose trust and faith in the electoral system and the outcome of the election.”
In Parker County, Elections Administrator Crickett Miller said the office has received nearly 4,500 requests for ballot by mail. Miller, who recently became the administrator for the county, said although she has not been here for previous elections, she thinks the number is still a little higher than usual.
“The law on hand delivering ballots has been that you can hand deliver your mail-in ballot at the election office on election day, you must present a photo ID and sign a roster. The governor has extended the ruling so that you can hand deliver your mail-in ballot any time after you have received it — not election day only,” Miller said. “We have signs at the annex to let voters know that they must turn in the mail ballot to our office.”
The drop-off location for Parker County is the annex at 1112 Santa Fe Drive in Weatherford.
Palo Pinto County Elections Administrator Laura Watkins said as of Oct. 9, there were 1,194 ballots requested for the Nov. 3 election. Watkins compared that number to the March primary, 558; the run-off election, 743; and the Senate District 30 special election, 890.
“Palo Pinto County is setting new records in ballot-by-mail requests,” Watkins said. “The early voting clerks office in Palo Pinto will be open and have the same hours as the early voting sites and election day from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. for voters to hand deliver their ballots.”
The drop-off location for Palo Pinto County voters who wish to hand deliver is the county elections office at 435 Oak St. in Palo Pinto.
The data from states examined for this report shows neither major political party benefited more from mailed ballots in 2020. In Oklahoma and Pennsylvania, Democrats were more likely to vote by mail. In Florida and Georgia, Republicans cast more ballots by mail.
The financial divide
More consistent than party-line divides in voting behavior are economic divides. In seven of eight states, mail-in and absentee voting was more popular in counties with higher median incomes.
A poll of New York voters conducted by Siena College in late September found voters in the youngest age bracket — 18 to 34 — and those with an annual income of at least $50,000 are more likely to vote by mail in the November election. The survey of 504 likely New York voters also indicated Republicans in the state heavily favor in-person voting.
Trump has been a frequent critic of mailed ballots, attempting to discredit their use. He’s cited risks of “mayhem” and fraud. Vice President Mike Pence repeated claims of potential for widespread fraud because of mailed ballots during a nationally televised debate Wednesday night.
Despite repeated claims by politicians, the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan public policy and law institute, found fraud is “very rare, voter impersonation is virtually nonexistent, and many instances of alleged fraud are, in fact, mistakes by voters or administrators.”
Local and state elections officials often point to ballot numbering and tracking systems, and signature verification processes as some of the safeguards in place to prevent fraud.
The institute found the same holds true for mail-in ballots, which are “essential to holding a safe election” during the pandemic.
In some states, GOP and Trump campaign leaders are even urging mailed ballots.
In Georgia, Trump campaign doorknockers carried absentee ballot applications, and Georgia’s GOP sent out mailers in late August with absentee ballot request forms. The spike in absentee balloting in the state follows reports of voters waiting in line for more than seven hours in some precincts to cast ballots in recent elections.
In Pennsylvania and Michigan, some voters have received absentee ballot applications sent on behalf of Trump’s campaign or state Republican party officials.
“As absentee has grown exponentially, we give every voter that we talk to the opportunity to cast absentee,” said Brian Barrett, regional political director in Georgia for the Trump Victory campaign.
In Pennsylvania, expanded mail-in voting eligibility in 2020 resulted in 1.5 million voters opting to cast ballots outside the polls in the state’s June primary. Previously, access was limited to voters like college students and military personnel. More than 2.2 million applications have been received ahead of the general election.
In Parker County, requirements to vote by mail include being 65 years or older, have a disability, have an expected absence from the county or be confined in jail.
“Voters that requested a mail-in ballot and then decide they want to go to the polls to vote may do so, but must bring their mail-in ballot with them to cancel it and then vote a ballot,” Miller said. “If the voter does not have their ballot, they will have to vote provisionally. The elections office investigates the provisional ballot, which is turned over to the ballot board to process. A voter that votes provisionally will receive a letter after the election to let them know if their ballot was accepted or rejected.”
CNHI statehouse reporters Riley Bunch, Whitney Downard, John Finnerty, Reese Gorman and Joe Mahoney, and Weatherford Democrat reporter Autumn Owens contributed to this report.