By CHRISTINA A. CASSIDY – Associated Press
ATLANTA (AP) — The big wave of mail-in voting appears to be receding as quickly as it came.
After tens of millions of people in the United States opted to vote by mail in the 2020 pandemic election, voters in early primary states are returning to in-person voting in droves this year.
In Georgia, one of the most contested states, about 85,000 voters had requested mail-in ballots for the May 24 primary on Thursday. That’s a dramatic decrease from the nearly one million people who voted by mail in the 2020 state primary during 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 decline in mail-in voting was expected given easing concerns about COVID-19, but some election officials and voting experts predicted that many more voters would seek the convenience of mail-in voting once they would have experienced it.
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The reversal of temporary rules expanding mail-in ballots in 2020, combined with distrust of the process among Republicans and concerns about new voting restrictions among Democrats, contributed to the reversal. And a year and a half of former President Donald Trump and his allies pushing false claims about mail-in voting to explain his loss to Democrat Joe Biden has also hurt voter confidence.
“It’s unfortunate because our electoral system has been misinterpreted and the integrity of our elections called into question,” said Ben Hovland, a Trump-appointed Democrat to the United States Election Assistance Commission. “Absentee ballots are a safe and secure method of voting used by millions of Americans, including myself.”
A record 43% of voters in the United States voted by mail in 2020, up from 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 as large as for mail-in ballots, the survey found.
Prior to the November 2020 election, 12 states expanded access to mail-in ballots by relaxing certain requirements. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, five more sent ballots to all eligible voters or authorized local authorities to do so. This year, eight states will mail ballots to every eligible voter.
In Georgia, state officials had passed no-apology absentee ballots and three weeks of in-person early voting before the pandemic. Laws surrounding mail-in voting changed after the 2020 election, amid Trump’s efforts to discredit the result after its short 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. A comprehensive review by The Associated Press of all potential voter fraud cases in 2020 in the six states contested by Trump found nowhere enough cases to affect the outcome.
That hasn’t stopped Republican state lawmakers from citing election security concerns to justify further restrictions on voting, and mail-in voting in particular. The changes confused some voters. In Texas, voters were surprised by new ID requirements in the state’s March primary, leading to an unusually high rate of mail-in ballot rejections.
Requesting a mail-in ballot is much harder now in Georgia than it was in 2020, when voters could go online to request a ballot be mailed to them without a printed request. Part of the 2021 election law pushed by Republicans required voters to print or obtain a paper form, then sign it in ink before mailing, emailing or faxing it.
Voters must also include their driver’s license number or other form of identification after Republicans ruled the process of matching voter signatures was no longer secure enough for an absentee ballot request.
“I couldn’t even understand,” said Ursula Gruenewald, who lives in Cobb County, north of Atlanta. “Before, I just clicked a button on a website, and they sent 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 that she waited in line for two hours to vote in person in 2016.
Experts said it’s too early to tell whether voting habits have changed permanently. How people vote in primaries doesn’t necessarily reflect how they’ll vote in a general election, when turnout is higher and voters might be more concerned about crowded polling stations and long lines. waiting.
Preliminary data from Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia also shows that the number of mail-in votes cast this year is a fraction of what the states saw in the 2020 primaries and closely tracks the numbers. 2018 levels.
In Virginia’s gubernatorial election last year, the percentage of mail-in votes was slightly higher than four years earlier but significantly lower than in 2020, said Charles Stewart III, an election expert and professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“The elections are sort of going back to where they were,” he said.
In Georgia, polling groups fear a new, earlier deadline for requesting an absentee ballot could trip up voters if they wait too long. They also closely monitor the rejection rate of ballots. Around 1,000 mail-in ballot requests have been rejected so far, about 1.2% of all requests received. This is a lower rate than the 2018 primary and slightly higher than the 2020 election.
As of the end of last week, 195 absentee ballots were rejected, mostly due to missing or incorrect credentials, which are new requirements under state law. Common Cause Georgia deployed “help stations” across the state where voters could access a computer, printer and scanner to print out an absentee ballot application before Friday’s deadline.
“People believe in political propaganda and don’t understand that it creates more barriers to voting,” said Aunna Dennis, the group’s executive director.
Georgian voters are instead turning to in-person early voting, which is setting records. About 305,000 ballots were cast at early voting locations across the state, three times as many as did for the same period in the 2018 primary, state officials say .
Outside of 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 were concerned that ballots by correspondence are not so secure.
“Today I walked in, got my ballot, voted and off I go,” said Bill Baldwin, who was back to voting in person after voting by mail in 2020 due to pandemic concerns. “And I’m not queuing to the other end of the building.”
Debbie Hamby, a nurse who lives in Kennesaw, north of Atlanta, said she supports mail-in voting limits and believes voting in person is safer. She, too, voted early last week.
“There’s no question as to who the person is if you have your license and ID,” Hamby said. “You can see the person in the photo is the person voting, and we know it’s an honest vote.”
Associated Press writers Jeff Amy in Atlanta; Tom Davies in Indianapolis; John Raby in Charleston, West Virginia; and Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.
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