Claudia Swisher loves casting her ballot in person on Election Day, but this year, COVID-19 health concerns are keeping her away from the polls.
In her lifetime, the 75-year-old Norman, Oklahoma, resident has voted only four times by mail. She cast three of those ballots this year. Swisher also paid $100 to become a notary public to make it easier for her neighbors to comply with the absentee ballot notarization law in the state.
“I want to take away as many barriers as possible to vote because people who want to vote should have as many options as possible,” Swisher said.
All but a handful of states now allow widespread access to mail-in — or absentee — balloting, but voters nationwide find themselves navigating a complex patchwork of regulations, covering things such as voter ID requirements and strict ballot deadlines, that vary from state to state.
And prospective voters face conflicting messages about whether their ballots will be counted amid concerns over U.S. Postal Service delivery delays, barriers to access in poorer communities and the potential for fraud, despite no significant evidence that is, has been or will be a problem.
Still, experts say mail-in ballots will play a pivotal role in the Nov. 3 election and warn the race may not be settled until days later or longer, as record-setting numbers of people vote by mail.
The last presidential election was decided by margins of less than 2% in six states — Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Wisconsin. Pundits and policymakers differ on which states will swing this year, but some estimate the race could hinge on voters in eight, including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
A CNHI data analysis showed voters cast ballots by mail in record numbers in the 2020 primaries when compared with 2016. Spikes in vote-by-mail turnout ranged from 2,758% in Georgia to 11% in Florida. Pennsylvania, which allowed anyone to vote absentee for the first time in 2020, saw a 1,616% increase in returned absentee ballot applications.
The increases in mail-in and absentee voting also held in places where total turnout fell.
CNHI's data analysis collected and analyzed county-by-county election data from eight states where mail-in or absentee ballot numbers were available. The findings show:
• In six swing states (Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Pennsylvania), at least 5.2 million more voters used mail-in or absentee ballots in 2020 primary elections when compared with similar electoral milestones in 2016.
• Republicans relied more heavily on mail-in voting during 2020 primaries in two of four states where such comparisons were possible (Florida and Georgia). Prior to 2020, in Florida and Georgia's 2016 primaries, mail-in voting was roughly equally popular with Democratic and Republican voters.
• In seven of eight states examined, median household income of a county had a positive relationship with the use of mail-in and absentee ballots. Generally, the more wealthy a county, regardless which political party claims majority support, the more voters used mail-in or absentee ballots in 2020.
The net effect of the exponential growth of remote voting has been a substantial expansion and diversification of the pool of people who participate in elections, said Enrijeta Shino, a University of North Florida assistant professor of political science.
Prior to 2020, Republicans tended to vote by mail at higher rates than Democrats, but that is changing, she said.
The data from states examined for this report shows neither major political party benefited more from mailed ballots in 2020. In Oklahoma and Pennsylvania, Democrats were more likely to vote by mail. In Florida and Georgia, Republicans cast more ballots by mail.
The financial divide
More consistent than party-line divides in voting behavior are economic divides. In seven of eight states, mail-in and absentee voting was more popular in counties with higher median incomes.
A poll of New York voters conducted by Siena College in late September found voters in the youngest age bracket — 18 to 34 — and those with an annual income of at least $50,000 are more likely to vote by mail in the November election.
President Donald Trump has been a frequent critic of mailed ballots, attempting to discredit their use. He’s cited risks of “mayhem” and fraud.
Despite repeated claims by politicians, the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan public policy and law institute, found fraud is “very rare, voter impersonation is virtually nonexistent, and many instances of alleged fraud are, in fact, mistakes by voters or administrators.”
The institute found the same holds true for mail-in ballots, which are “essential to holding a safe election” during the pandemic.
In some states, GOP and Trump campaign leaders are even urging mailed ballots.
“As absentee has grown exponentially, we give every voter that we talk to the opportunity to cast absentee,” said Brian Barrett, regional political director in Georgia for the Trump Victory campaign.
Still, many conservative voters are quick to question security of mailed ballots.
Trump supporter Seth Rugen, of Oxford, Pennsylvania, said he fears the shift away from in-person voting provides more opportunities for fraud.
“Now you’ve got all these states with different regulations and dates and postmark dates,” Rugen said. “I don’t like that.”
Elections decisions — like how to count absentee ballots or handle registration forms — are largely left to state and local officials, said Joseph Anthony, an assistant visiting professor at Oklahoma State University.
“It really does make it much more difficult to manipulate or steal an election,” he said.
But the patchwork of procedures has created disparities. States that don’t provide free return postage for ballots risk disenfranchising minority and low-income communities, and a lack of reliable broadband access across swaths of rural America can make it difficult to even request ballots, experts said.
Potential postal problem
Additionally, voters in some places already have experienced problems with mailed ballots.
Still, there is no evidence that absentee balloting creates a widespread problem, said Grant Reeher, director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University.
Some Americans fear upheaval at the U.S. Postal Service could thwart their chance to vote after a top-down restructuring in the organization that reduced mail sorting capacity in some places.
In response to concerns both about mail delivery and processing, many states have made changes to ballot processing restrictions.
In Michigan, clerks now will count late-arriving ballots that are postmarked by Nov. 2.
Traverse City, Michigan, Clerk Benjamin Marentette said he doesn’t believe the concerns about late ballots merit as much attention as they get.
"I honestly think that a lot of the dialogue that's out there that sheds doubt on the Postal Service's ability to meet this mission is really meant to keep people from feeling comfortable voting absentee," he said. "And they should feel comfortable voting absentee."
For those who don't trust the mail, Marentette encourages voters to drop their absentee ballots off in person.
CNHI statehouse reporters Riley Bunch, Whitney Downard, John Finnerty and Joe Mahoney contributed to this report.