In early primaries, voters favor polling places over mail
The great vote-by-mail wave appears to be receding just as quickly as it arrived.
After tens of millions of people in the United States opted for mail ballots during the pandemic election of 2020, voters in early primary states are returning in droves to in-person voting this year.
In Georgia, one of the mostly hotly contested states, about 85,000 voters had requested mail ballots for the May 24 primary, as of Thursday. That is 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.
The trend was similar in Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia, which held primaries this month; comparisons were not available for Nebraska, another early primary state.
A step back in mail balloting was expected given easing concerns about COVID-19, but some election officials and voting experts had predicted that far more voters would seek out the convenience of mail voting once they experienced it.
Helping drive the reversal is the rollback of temporary rules expanding mail ballots in 2020, combined with distrust of the process among Republicans and concerns about new voting restrictions among Democrats. And a year and a half of former President Donald Trump and his allies pushing false claims about mail voting to explain his loss to Democrat Joe Biden has also taken a toll on voter confidence.
"It's unfortunate because our election system has been mischaracterized and the integrity of our elections questioned," said Ben Hovland, a Democrat appointed by Trump to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. "Mail ballots are a safe and secure method of voting used by millions of Americans, including myself."
A record 43% of voters in the U.S. cast mail ballots in 2020, compared with 24.5% in 2016, according to the commission's survey of local election officials. The number of voters who used in-person early voting also increased, although the jump was not quite as large as in mail ballots, the survey found.
Before the November 2020 election, 12 states expanded access to mail ballots by loosening certain requirements. Five more either mailed ballots to all eligible voters or allowed local officials to do so, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. This year, eight states will mail ballots to every eligible voter.
In Georgia, state officials had adopted no-excuse mail ballots and three weeks of early, in-person voting before the pandemic. Laws surrounding mail voting changed after the 2020 election, amid Trump's effort to discredit the outcome after his narrow loss in the state.
There is no evidence to support Trump's claims of widespread fraud or a conspiracy to steal the election. Judges, including some appointed by Trump, dismissed numerous lawsuits challenging the results. An exhaustive review by The Associated Press of every potential 2020 voter fraud case in the six states disputed by Trump found nowhere near enough instances to affect the result.
That has not stopped Republican state lawmakers from citing election security concerns as justification for new restrictions to voting, and mail voting in particular. The changes have confused some voters. In Texas, voters were tripped up by new identification requirements in the state's March primary, resulting in an abnormally high rate of mail ballot rejections.
Requesting a mail ballot is significantly harder now in Georgia than in 2020, when voters could go online to request a ballot be sent to them without a printed request. Part of the 2021 voting law pushed by Republicans required voters to print or obtain a paper form, then sign it in ink before sending it in by mail, email or fax.
Voters also must include their driver's license number or some other form of identification after Republicans decided that the process of matching voter signatures was no longer enough security for an absentee ballot application.
"I couldn't even figure it out," said Ursula Gruenewald, who lives in Cobb County, north of Atlanta. "Before, I used to just click a button on a website, and they'd send me my ballot. I don't know what they want now."
Gruenewald said she usually votes by mail but decided last week to seek out a nearby early voting center, recalling she had waited in line for two hours to vote in person in 2016.
Experts said it is too early to say whether voting patterns have shifted permanently. How people vote in primaries does not necessarily reflect how they will vote in a general election, when turnout will be heavier and voters might be more worried about crowded polling places and long lines.
Preliminary data from Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia also shows the number of mail ballots cast this year is a fraction of what the states saw in the 2020 primaries and tracks closely to 2018 levels.
In the Virginia governor's election last year, the percentage of mail ballots cast was slightly larger than four years earlier but noticeably lower than in 2020, said Charles Stewart III, an elections expert and professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"Elections are kind of going back to where they were," he said.
In Georgia, voting groups are concerned that a new earlier deadline to request a mail ballot will trip up voters if they wait too long. They also are closely watching the rate of ballot rejections. About 1,000 mail ballot applications have been rejected so far, or about 1.2% of all applications received. That is a lower rate than the 2018 primary and slightly higher than the 2020 elections.
As of late 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 deployed "self-help stations" around the state where voters could access a computer, printer and scanner to print out a mail ballot application before Friday's deadline.
"People are believing political propaganda and not understanding this is creating more hurdles to voting," said Aunna Dennis, the group's executive director.
Georgia voters instead are turning to early, in-person voting, which is setting records. About 305,000 ballots have been cast at early voting locations across the state, or three times as many who did so for the same period during the 2018 primary, according to state officials.
Outside an early voting location north of Atlanta, some voters said they simply preferred the convenience of voting early and in person, while others said they worried mail ballots were not as secure.
"Today I walked in, got my ballot, voted, and I'm leaving," said Bill Baldwin, who was back to voting 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 limits on mail ballots and believes voting in-person is more secure. She, too, voted early last week.
"There's not a question as to who the person is if you have your license and identity," Hamby said. "You can see the person in the picture is the person who's voting, and we know that it's an honest vote."