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.
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.
I’m not surprised that voting by mail is down from 2020. Lots of people just like voting in person, I think. I know I do, though I’m a weirdo who actually knows a lot of the candidates and their campaign staffs. I’m also not surprised that it’s down this much given how much harder it is now to vote by mail and how much abuse and disinformation has been heaped on the practice. I think longer term it will tick back up, if only because a significant portion of the population is heading into senior citizen territory and those are the biggest mail ballot users, but who knows how long the Trump/GOP damage will last.
I would be remiss if I didn’t once again harp on the mail ballot rejection issue here in Texas, which wasn’t noted in that story. I have no doubt that there are now people who would have voted by mail, who may have tried to vote by mail in March, who will instead vote in person because of the significant risk of their mail ballot not being counted. I’m still waiting to see if voting by mail in May was any less messy than it was in March. Keep your fingers crossed.