Home / Politics / News /  Mail balloting is fueling historic early voting in the 2020 election

With less than three weeks until Election Day, many states are already seeing historic levels of early voting as people cast their ballots through the mail in the middle of a pandemic.

Seven states, including Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Virginia have already received more early ballots than they did in the 2016 presidential election. Several other states have topped 2016 numbers for mail ballots returned, even as in-person early voting is opening up in much of the country.

So far, 12.5 million people have voted by mail in the general election and more than 2 million headed to polling places early to cast ballots, according to figures from 39 states and the District of Columbia compiled by the Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal. For comparison, more than 58 million early ballots were cast in 2016.

The unprecedented influx of early balloting, in person and especially by mail, is presenting a challenge for local election officials. How they handle it is likely to figure into whether voters will see a protracted wait for results beyond Election Day in the presidential race, especially from closely fought battleground states.

Election officials already talk about “Election Week" rather than “Election Day" and urge voters to see a lengthy count in close contests as normal. States have raced to ramp up, buying extra machines to tabulate votes, adding extra staff to count ballots and in some cases extending deadlines. Those rule changes are setting off partisan court battles in key states that will determine which votes count and are adding uncertainty as voters cast ballots in droves.

Virginia, one of the first states to open early in-person voting sites, topped 2016 levels for both categories of advance voting in the first week it reported numbers. More than 1 million ballots have been cast in the state, with slightly more early in-person ballots being cast than mail-in votes.

In Florida, which has 29 Electoral College votes and where polling shows a tight race between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, about 1.9 million mail ballots have been cast. Floridians can request absentee ballots until Oct. 24.

North Carolina, another presidential battleground and host to a competitive Senate race, received more mail-in votes by mid-to-late September than it saw for all of the 2016 general election.

In 2016, some 192,000 ballots were cast by mail compared with 506,000 so far. In 2016, most early voters in North Carolina cast ballots in person, accounting for almost 3 million votes statewide. Advance polling sites in the state are open from Thursday to Oct. 31.

In both North Carolina and Florida, registered Democrats have cast more ballots than registered Republicans so far. In North Carolina, independent voters have also cast more early ballots than registered Republicans.

The pace of early votes is poised to increase in the weeks leading up to Nov. 3, as deadlines begin to approach.

In Georgia, voters reported waiting in line for hours on the first day of early, in-person voting, when the secretary of state’s office said a record 126,876 people voted. So far, 743,000 people have voted in the state either in person or through the mail.

Several battleground states are already seeing large numbers of requests for mail ballots. This could make for a long election night in states that prohibit the counting or processing of ballots before election day.

Michigan officials said 978,000 early votes have already been cast, about 76% of the total 2016 advance vote and more than three times the number cast through the same time four years ago.

Michigan’s top election official, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, expects 3 million of the state’s estimated 5-5.5 million voters to vote early.

Because Michigan doesn’t begin tabulating mail ballots until 7 a.m. on Election Day, Ms. Benson said that her office projects that results could be announced as late as the following Friday.

In Wisconsin, which starts counting on Election Day, election officials have received 756,000 of the 1.4 million ballots requested. In 2016, 826,000 people voted early either through the mail or in-person in total. Polling places for early voting open Oct. 20 in Wisconsin.

In Pennsylvania, more early ballots have been cast than in either the 2016 or 2018 general elections. More than 437,000 mail-in ballots had been received by election officials out of more than 2.6 million that have been requested.

While ballots pour in, court battles are determining issues of how people vote and whether ballots are disqualified.

Mail balloting has produced fights over the use of special drop boxes and the need for witness signatures. Election officials also warn that first-time mail voters are likely to make mistakes, leading to large numbers of rejected ballots. Signatures that don’t match voting records frequently get ballots disqualified, according to federal government data.

In Texas, courts are wrangling over an order by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott restricting drop boxes for mail ballots to one per county, which he justified as a ballot-security measure. A federal judge lifted the restrictions as an undue burden on voters only to have a three-judge appeals panel reinstate the limit.

The opinion, from judges appointed by Mr. Trump, found that Mr. Abbott had expanded voter access through early voting that allowed ballots to be hand-delivered for 40 extra days, rather than just on Election Day.

In North Carolina, Republicans are challenging changes supported by Democrats that would extend the ballot-receipt deadline and make it easier for voters to fix problems with their absentee ballot, such as a missing witness signature.

A federal court has permitted Pennsylvania to use unmanned drop boxes for convenience, rejecting Republican concerns about tampering, and rebuffed their arguments that mail ballots should be disallowed if the signatures on them don’t match signatures on previous ballot applications.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court is also considering Republican requests to block the extension of Pennsylvania’s deadline for accepting mail ballots. The state’s high court previously ruled that ballots received through the Friday after the Nov. 3 election would be counted as long as they were mailed by Election Day, even if lacking a postmark.

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