ATLANTA ( Associated Press) — The great wave of vote-by-mail seems to be receding as fast as it has arrived.
Voters in the early primary states are returning in large numbers to vote in person this year, after millions of people cast mail ballots during the 2020 pandemic election in the United States.
In Georgia, one of the most contested states, nearly 85,000 voters had requested mail ballots for the May 24 primary as of Thursday. That’s a dramatic decrease from the nearly 1 million who cast mail ballots in the state’s 2020 primary at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
There was a similar trend in Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia, where the primaries were held this month; Comparisons were not available for Nebraska, another early primary state.
A step back in mail balloting was expected to ease concerns about COVID-19, but some election officials and polling experts predicted that more voters would seek the convenience of mail voting once they experienced it.
Helping the reversal drive is the rollback of temporary rules expanding mail ballots in 2020, combined with mistrust of the process among Republicans and concerns about new voting restrictions among Democrats. And pushing false claims about mail voting to explain their loss to Democrat Joe Biden, a year and a half ago, has taken a toll on voter confidence, even as former President Donald Trump and his allies have been pushing forward with false claims about mail voting.
“This is unfortunate because our election system has been misrepresented and the integrity of our elections has been questioned,” said Democrat Ben Howland, who was appointed by Trump to the US Election Assistance Commission. “Mail Ballot is a safe and secure method of voting used by millions of Americans, including me.”
A record 43% of voters in the US cast mail ballots in 2020, compared to 24.5% in 2016, according to a survey by the Commission of Local Election Officials. The survey found that the number of voters using in-person early voting also increased, although the jump was not as large as by mail ballots.
Ahead of the November 2020 election, 12 states expanded access to postal ballots by relaxing some requirements. According to the National Convention of State Legislatures, five more people either sent ballots to all eligible voters or allowed local officials to do so. This year eight states will send ballots to every eligible voter.
In Georgia, state officials adopted no-execute mail ballots and early, in-person voting three weeks before the pandemic. Laws surrounding mail voting changed after the 2020 election, amid Trump’s attempt to discredit the result after his narrow loss in the state.
There is no evidence to support Trump’s widespread fraud claims or conspiracy to steal the election. Judges dismissed several lawsuits challenging the results, including some Trump-appointed judges. A detailed review by the Associated Press of every potential 2020 voter fraud case in the six states disputed by Trump found nowhere near enough examples to influence the outcome.
That hasn’t deterred Republican state lawmakers from citing new restrictions on voting and, in particular, election security concerns as a justification for mail voting. The changes have confused some voters. In Texas, voters were implicated in the state’s March primary by new identification requirements, resulting in unusually high rates of mail ballot rejections.
Requesting a mail ballot is now significantly more difficult in Georgia than in 2020, when voters could go online to request a ballot mailed to them without a printed request. Part of the 2021 voting law pushed by Republicans requires voters to print or receive a paper form, then sign it in ink before sending it by mail, email or fax.
Voters must also include their driver’s license number or some other form of identification when Republicans decided that the process of voter signature matching was no longer a sufficient protection for an absentee ballot application.
“I couldn’t even figure it out,” said Ursula Grunewald, who lives in Cobb County, north of Atlanta. “Earlier, I used to just click a button on a website, and they would send me my ballot. I don’t know what they want now.”
Grunewald said she usually votes by mail, but last week she decided to look for an early polling station nearby, remembering that she waited in line for two hours to vote in person in 2016. did.
Experts said it is too early to say whether the voting pattern has changed permanently. How people vote in primaries does not necessarily reflect how they will vote in a general election, when turnout is high and voters may be more concerned about crowded polling places and long lines.
Preliminary data for Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia also shows that the number of mail ballots cast this year is a fraction of what the states saw in the 2020 primaries and close to 2018 levels.
Charles Stewart III, an election expert and professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said last year in Virginia’s gubernatorial election, the percentage of mail ballots was slightly larger than it was four years ago, but significantly lower than in 2020.
“Elections go back to where they were,” he said.
In Georgia, polling groups are concerned that a new earlier deadline for requesting a mail ballot will upset voters if they wait too long. They are also keeping a close watch on ballot rejection rates. Nearly 1,000 postal ballot applications have been rejected so far, or about 1.2% of all applications received. This is slightly higher than the 2018 primary and the 2020 elections.
As of the end of last week, 195 mail ballots have been rejected, mostly because of missing or incorrect ID information, which are new requirements under state law. Common Cause Georgia has deployed “self-help stations” around the state where voters can use computers, printers and scanners to print out mail ballot applications before the Friday deadline.
The group’s executive director Auna Dennis said, “People are trusting political propaganda and not understanding it is creating more hurdles in voting.”
Georgia voters are instead voting early, in person, setting records. According to state officials, nearly 305,000 ballots have been cast at early polling locations across the state, or three times as many ballots were cast for the same period during the 2018 primary.
Outside an early voting location north of Atlanta, some voters said they preferred the convenience of voting early and in person, while others said they worried mail ballots weren’t as secure.
“Today I went in, got my ballot, voted, and I’m leaving,” said Bill Baldwin, who had returned to vote in person after casting a mail ballot in 2020 due to pandemic concerns. “And I’m not standing in a line to the other end of the building.”
Debbie Hamby, a nurse who lives in Kennesaw, north of Atlanta, said she supports the limitation of mail ballots and believes it is safer to vote in person. He too had voted early last week.
“There’s no question who that person is if you have your license and identification,” Hamby said. “You can see in the picture that there’s the person who is voting, and we know it’s an honest vote.”