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Worries about postal service and mail-in ballots push early voters to in-person polling places

Voters in North Carolina, Georgia and states across the country where early voting has begun have been waiting in line for hours to cast their ballots. One reason they're doing it despite being in the midst of a pandemic: They don't trust the mail to deliver their ballots.

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Jeremy Herb
CNN — Voters in North Carolina, Georgia and states across the country where early voting has begun have been waiting in line for hours to cast their ballots. One reason they're doing it despite being in the midst of a pandemic: They don't trust the mail to deliver their ballots.

The long lines at early voting locations across the country are in part a sign of the enthusiasm to vote in the contentious presidential election, in particular for Democrats. But President Donald Trump's sustained attacks on vote-by-mail combined with clumsily implemented overhauls to the US Postal Service are leading some voters to turn to in-person early voting rather than voting by mail.

Hattie Redfearn waited a little more than an hour to vote an early voting site in Charlotte on Thursday, North Carolina's first day of in-person early voting.

"We didn't want our ballots to get lost, misplaced, thrown in the trash or whatever's going on, so to be on the safe side just come on in -- stand in line, be prepared and here we are," Redfearn said.

As the Covid-19 pandemic escalated, many states eased their requirements for voters to cast absentee ballots, and some states changed their laws to conduct the 2020 election almost completely through the mail.

But Trump and his campaign launched a sustained attack on vote-by-mail, filing lawsuits to try to block states from sending mail-in ballots to all registered voters, which have largely been unsuccessful. Trump has made false claims repeatedly that vote by mail is ripe with systematic fraud, when multiple states have conducted all-mail elections with little evidence of fraud for years.

Then this summer, the new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy -- a major Trump donor -- made changes to Postal Service operations that led to delays in mail service and sparked outrage among Democrats, and postal unions warning there could be an impact on handling the surge in absentee ballots this November.

The Postal Service has said it is fully capable of handling the massive increase in mail volume that comes from absentee ballots, and DeJoy suspended many of the changes he was implementing amid the blowback -- and court orders -- in recent months.

A record-setting year

The 2020 election will smash records for mail-in voting due to the pandemic, as requests for mail-in ballots have broken records in state after state, and nine states plus the District of Columbia are voting primarily by mail.

But the hours-long waits during early voting in states like Georgia, Virginia and Texas are showing that some voters may be rethinking the plans to send their ballot through the mail.

"It sucks, but you know I'd rather be out here doing my civic duty than not, I don't trust the whole mail-in voting thing," said Sean Terrell, who had been waiting in line at an Atlanta polling place for two hours on Tuesday, the state's second day of early voting. "So I will be here and I will sign it and make sure it goes where it needs to go."

Asked why she wasn't just voting by mail, Terrell said, "I mean, there's the system has proven itself dis trustworthy thus far, just throughout history and, especially given our current administration."

Jim O'Conner was one of the first to cast ballots in Fairfax, Virginia, when in-person voting opened last month. Asked why he was voting in-person, he said, "I don't trust the mail right now. That's why, If I've got to stand here all day, I'm going to vote today."

It's hard to calculate whether the early enthusiasm among those casting in-person ballots will put a dent in the number of people who will vote by mail, but it's a question that comes with political implications.

An NPR/PBS/Marist poll conducted this month showed voters planning to vote in person supported Trump 62-35%, while those planning to vote by mail backed Biden 73-23%. And voters planning to cast their ballot at an early voting location favored Biden over Trump 65-32%.

In all, the poll found, 65% of Trump voters intended to cast their ballots on election day in person. Biden voters were more split, with 43% planning to vote by mail, 26% at an early voting location and 29% in person on election day.

Democrats have been warning that because they have so many more voters casting ballots through the mail, the initial returns on the night of November 3 may show Trump ahead, only to shift as more ballots are counted.

States have different deadlines for when absentee or mail ballots must be submitted and when they can be processed. Two key battlegrounds, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, won't start processing absentee ballots until Election Day, meaning a delay in counting is likely.

Shifting from mail-in to in-person

After a major initial push on using vote by mail, Democrats have sought to shift their messaging in recent weeks to ensure their voters are comfortable going to the polls, too. One concern with vote-by-mail is the higher rate of disqualified ballots. Another is slow USPS service causing missed deadlines.

States are reporting significant vote counts both for ballots cast by mail and early voting. On its first day of in-person early voting, North Carolina state board of elections reported 230,000 ballots were cast, while more than 550,000 absentee ballots had been accepted since mail-in voting began there last month.

Georgia reported as of Thursday it had accepted more than 540,000 absentee ballots, while more than 375,000 voters had cast ballots at early voting locations. And New Mexico reported it had received 72,000 absentee ballots and just under 70,000 votes in person. Two-thirds of absentee ballots in New Mexico were cast by registered Democrats, while registered Republicans slightly outnumbered Democrats voting in person, 34,000-to-28,000.

Wisconsin's chief election official, Meagan Wolfe, said she has not seen a decreased interest in absentee ballots due to the issues with Postal Service, but she has seen an increased interest from people requesting absentee ballots electing to return them in person rather sending them through the mail.

That was the case in Michigan at a Detroit satellite election office earlier this month, where Marilyn Taylor brought her absentee ballot to turn in rather than sending it through the mail.

"I dropped off my ballot. I put in the voter box because I didn't trust the US mail," Taylor said.

Another Michigan voter, Katherine Porter, offered a similar explanation why she was turning in her ballot directly to the satellite office instead of using the mail.

"I feel like it's safer," she said. "And it's the first time I ever did this so, I just hope my vote counts."

Michigan does not have early voting sites like Georgia and other states, but it allows voters to turn in absentee ballots in person at a local clerk's office, and the state has made an effort to open up more locations for voters to drop off absentee ballots or fill them out in-person. Detroit opened up 23 satellite voting centers on October 5 for people to register to vote or turn in their absentee ballot.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said it was her job to make citizens aware of the options that they have to vote and ensure they're confident in the process.

"We know that many other voices out there have been trying to you know deter some people from feeling safe with one option or the other, and my job similarly is to counter that noise with accurate information" Benson said.

But Benson also emphasized that voters who choose to vote by mail should do so early -- if it gets within two weeks of Election Day, she said, voters should return their absentee ballots in-person.

"We don't want them to wait to the last minute to either request to return their ballot through the mail," Benson said.

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