Raleigh, N.C. — The coronavirus pandemic may be changing how people vote in North Carolina, with requests for mail-in absentee ballots setting records.
Elections officials across North Carolina won't even start sending out absentee ballots until the first week of September, but about 70,000 people have already requested them – four times more than at this point in 2016.
"It looks like, for a variety of reasons, North Carolinians are looking at absentee-by-mail voting and saying, 'This is the way I want to cast my ballot come November,'" said Michael Bitzer, a political science and history professor at Catawba College.
Concerns about standing in long lines and being in crowded polling places during the pandemic are likely foremost among those reasons, Bitzer said.
"That may be driving folks to say, 'I want to take the safe route to cast my ballot,'" he said. "The other aspect that I’m thinking about is perhaps voter intensity and engagement [is] at levels that we have not seen in a very long time, and people – perhaps intense partisans – want to go ahead and bank their votes. Even though it maybe early September, they’re ready for it to be done with."
Bitzer analyzed the absentee ballot request numbers from all 100 counties statewide and said requests from rural counties are twice as high as they were four years ago. Urban counties are running four times higher, and the suburban counties around the urban ones have received five times more requests than at this point in 2016.
"We know that the battle is typically in the suburbs," he said, noting they tend to vote Republican. "If there’s some slippage for presidential support in those counties, this could be an early indicator of something happening."
Because of changes to state law after the 2018 election fraud scandal in the 9th Congressional District, the political parties of people requesting mail-in ballots are no longer public record, so it's unclear who might benefit from the early surge.
"Once a voter submits an absentee-by-mail ballot and it is accepted, then we know who that voter is, what party, racial dynamics," he said. "But until we get to early September and the ballots start coming in and getting accepted, we are really flying blind into what appears to be a pretty significant vote method process."
Bitzer estimates as many as 40 percent of North Carolina voters may vote by mail this fall, compared to just 5 percent in typical elections. That could change how long it takes to declare a winners in close races.